Balanced Budget Amendment Makes a Comeback

Budget measure gets a Democratic supporter.

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A long-time conservative goal is seeing a recent resurrection in Congress. Faced with tough choices about the federal budget, a few Democrats are joining Republicans to support statutory limits on future government spending, including a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Such measures have a slim chance of passage, but are likely to become a greater part of the discussion as lawmakers look to pass a spending measure for 2011 and raise the debt ceiling. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby first proposed a balanced budget amendment in 1987, when he was a Democrat (he joined the Republican Party in 1994)and he has continued to introduce it during every session of Congress. But this year, his amendment has received a bit more notice, as a senator from across the aisle, Mark Udall of Colorado, added his name as a cosponsor. "The United States has balanced its budget only five times in the past 50 years. Meanwhile, we've racked up a record debt that threatens our future economic leadership," Udall said in a statement. According to his office, Udall is the first Democratic senator to support a balanced budget amendment since Georgia Sen. Zell Miller supported one eight years ago. The amendment would prevent the government from spending more than it earns in revenue, or more than 20 percent of the gross domestic product of the previous year. Congress could only go around the limits by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, or through a congressional declaration of war.

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The last time Congress seriously dealt with a balanced budget amendment was in 1995, when Republicans pushed for a similar measure as part of their "Contract with America." The amendment overwhelmingly passed the House and came within one vote of the two-thirds majority necessary in the Senate before it could be sent to state legislatures for ratification. This time around, it isn't part of the GOP's platform, but several prominent Republicans, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, have endorsed the idea. Newly elected Utah Sen. Mike Lee has also called for an amendment with even more strict spending caps, and has said he would oppose any increase in the debt ceiling unless an amendment is agreed to.

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Another Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, has added her name to a Republican proposal to put statutory limits on future government spending. The measure isn't as drastic as a constitutional amendment, but it would likewise require Congress to slash its spending. The Commitment to American Prosperity Act would cap federal spending at 20.6 percent of GDP by 2021, by slowly tightening budget limits each year, beginning in 2013. If Congress couldn't come up with the cuts, the president would be authorized to make evenly distributed cuts throughout all federal departments. If passed, it wouldn't be the first time Congress has restricted its own ability to spend money. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities blasted McCaskill's proposal, saying that it would require $4.5 billion in draconian cuts to federal programs while leaving costly tax loopholes in place.

Both proposals have a long way to go before being enacted. But as the White House and Congress look for ways to resolve a budget stalemate, they're likely to consider long-term debt-reducing measures.