Congress has proved it knows how to balance a budget

Since 1787, the Constitution of the United States of America has served as the essential framework for our government, as well as a model for many of the democracies that have been created in the past 224 years.

The Bill of Rights, which makes up the first 10 amendments, was planned by our founders and adopted in 1791.

One of the wonders of the original document is that there have been only 17 amendments actually adopted since then, including one (prohibition) that was ultimately repealed.

The Constitution provides for a number of ways to amend it. The only way that has ever been used requires a vote of two-thirds of both the Senate and the House of Representatives followed by ratification by a minimum of three-quarters of the states.

In addition to the 17 amendments adopted, six amendments have passed the Congress but were never ratified by enough states. The amendment process is very, very difficult.

I learned early in my career, working on Sen. Joe Biden’s staff when he was on the Judiciary Committee, that the vast majority of constitutional amendments proposed in the committee (where they had to begin) never stood a chance of being attached to the Constitution.

If it is so difficult to ratify them, why are there so many proposed constitutional amendments? Looking at the history of many of these proposals, it becomes obvious that nearly all of them were symbols for an organized political movement. A case in point is the current effort to enact an amendment that would require the government to balance the budget every year.

As usual, Sen. Orin Hatch is among those in the Senate sponsoring the bill to amend. I say “as usual” because over his 34-year career in the Senate, he has introduced the amendment five times himself, and supported or co-sponsored the amendment more than 20 times.

His argument hasn’t changed in those years. “The path we are on will only get worse and Congress cannot solve this crisis by itself,” he recently wrote.

Back in 1979, that argument was actually stronger. Congress had not balanced a budget in modern history except for a very small surplus in 1969. Events since then have proved Sen. Hatch wrong. Congress knows how to balance the budget and has proved it can do it.

Congress balanced the budget without a constitutional amendment in the late 1990s and put the United States on the path to generate large surpluses. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and their Congresses put every part of the budget on the table and passed a combination of revenue increases and spending reductions that by 2001 were generating surpluses that were projected to eliminate the debt by 2010.

Then we made the big deficit mistake. We made the decision in 2001 to put the projected surpluses into unpaid-for tax cuts , rather than using the surpluses to pay down the debt. To compound the offense, we added to the unpaid debt by engaging in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and creating a major prescription drug program without paying for them. The projected surplus was replaced with 10 years of deficits.

I am not opposed to debating a balanced-budget amendment if there were any chance that it could pass. It is clear, however, after over 30 years of trying, that it will never become part of the Constitution, and based on recent history, it is not needed.

Congress needs to stop hiding behind a constitutional amendment and get about the tough work that is required.

As recently as last year, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform co-chaired by former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson came up with a proposal that gained the support of both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Their proposal mirrors what worked in the 1990s. Put both spending reductions and revenue increases on the table and make the tough decisions.

Originally published 18 Sep 2011 on