House Balanced-Budget Amendment Approved : Congress: Bipartisan vote moves historic proposal to Senate. But controversial curb on tax hikes is omitted.
Determined to make “government do what Americans do,” the House Thursday took the historic step of passing a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution but rejected a controversial proposal that would have made it more difficult for Congress to raise taxes.
The 300-132 vote, which crossed party lines, was met with shouts and applause in the chamber when the “ayes” topped the 290 needed to amend the Constitution.
“This was a bipartisan effort,” House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said. “It took a long time.
“But changing America is hard work. It’s difficult. But a team came together and it worked for the country. This is Congress at its best.”
The Speaker also challenged Congress to begin looking for ways to cut spending now and come up with a “seven-year track” that will make balancing the budget easier by the year 2002.
The amendment, at the heart of the GOP’s “contract with America,” now goes to the Senate where it is expected to pass, but not without a fight. If it is passed there, it would go to the states where three-fourths of the legislatures must approve it before it can become part of the Constitution.
The amendment would require that by the year 2002 the federal government not spend more than it takes in--a balance that Congress has not achieved since 1969. An exception could be made in time of war or “imminent and serious military threat.”
The amendment would require a three-fifths vote in both houses to run a deficit after it became a part of the Constitution. A similar three-fifths vote would be required to increase the federal debt, which now approaches $4.7 trillion.
After a generation of deficit spending and public demands for Congress to get its finances in order, House members were well aware of the significance of the occasion as they adopted House Joint Resolution No. 1.
“This moment is about the future of our children in this great nation,” said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) during the debate. “And we stand at this moment with a very frightening fact of our children’s lives: Each and every child is endowed with $18,000 of federal national debt.
“So today is our chance to rise to the occasion of the moment, to reach out, to put our disagreements aside and think about our children.”
Countered Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.): “If the Republicans want to decimate Social Security, Medicare and basic community services, let them vote for the balanced-budget amendment. I will not.”
Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), one of the freshman Republicans who came to the nation’s capital eager to institute reforms, said: “Americans balance their own budgets and demand the same of their own government,” she said. “Let’s make government do what Americans do.”
Among those voting against the measure was Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), who warned that if term limits, another of the GOP’s “contract with America” provisions, are enacted, responsibility would be passed to a new set of lawmakers to make the hard choices of cutting programs. This Congress, he said, “won’t have to dance to the music.”
After passage of the amendment, Gingrich said, he telephoned former First Lady Nancy Reagan to tell her the news, noting that Ronald Reagan “was deeply concerned about the red ink” when he was in the White House.
For the Republican leadership in the House, the long day of debate and a series of votes ended both bitter and sweet.
Earlier in the day, in a significant setback for Gingrich and his conservative allies, the House turned down a proposal that would require a “super-majority” of at least 60% in both houses of Congress to pass tax increases.
The provision won a majority of 253 to 173 but it was short of the 290 votes needed.
Eight GOP members broke with their colleagues and voted against the proposal. They called it unwise to restrict future members of Congress, especially if new taxes are needed to meet rising spending costs.
“You won’t find in the Congress a more fiscally conservative member than myself,” Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) said in an interview after voting against the tax proposal.
“The bottom line is that people believe that getting the deficit under control is the No. 1 priority, not cutting taxes. And we shouldn’t put into our Constitution artificial restraints that don’t get us there as quickly as we can.”
The tax provision was part of the new conservative agenda. Most Republicans want to balance the federal ledger by cutting programs, not by raising taxes.
Rep. Randy Tate (R-Wash.), another member of the GOP freshman class, said that he and his classmates have a “collective commitment” to keep taxes down so that “Americans can keep more of what they earn.”
But Democrats said that it is impractical to “blindly” tie the hands of future Congresses. They also said that they opposed the provision because it did not include a clause protecting Social Security from future cuts.
The Democrats tried to add a provision to the legislation that would have made Social Security immune from cuts but Republicans, who insisted that they do not plan cuts in Social Security, defeated the effort, 296 to 135.
“This amendment will put a noose around the necks of senior citizens,” charged Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It’s a noose that tightens every day we get closer to passing the ‘contract with America.’ ”