A proposed balanced budget amendment failed in the House on Thursday when fewer than two-thirds of members voted to approve it, as nearly everyone in the Capitol expected.
But for the members who stepped to the microphones during hours of debate, it was nothing but a win.
For Republicans, it was a chance to be seen supporting fiscal austerity and condemning deficit spending, just months after passing a tax cut bill that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said will add $1.9 trillion to the deficit.
“The reason we have a big deficit is not due to a lack of tax revenue; it’s due to the fact that Congress spends too much money,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. “This proposed constitutional amendment will give us the discipline that we have not had.”
Sensenbrenner cited his young grandchild. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas quoted Thomas Jefferson. Multiple members spoke about families balancing their checkbooks on kitchen tables, and businesses aligning their income and outflow.
“It’s not fair and it is not right when career politicians spend every single nickel they collect from you in taxes and borrow what they want to spend more,” railed Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine. “Every big spending bill in this town is loaded with pork.”
Republicans did not talk about where the cuts would come were an amendment to be approved: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Democrats talked of little else, and cast the amendment vote as rank hypocrisy after the passage of the tax cuts.
“Let’s call this balanced budget amendment what it is: A stunt to give Republicans political cover,” said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky. “Surely it’s intended to save Republicans’ rear ends.”
Rep. John Delaney of Maryland called it the measure “a doomsday machine.
“I’m from Brooklyn,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. “I know a hustle when I see one.”
Democrats regaled Republicans with quotes from within their own ranks, such as a tweet by Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky:
“Audacity (n): voting on a Constitutional balanced budget amendment only 4 legislative days after ramming through massive deficit spending, because you believe this stunt will convince constituents that you care about balancing the budget.”
The balanced budget amendment has been sought like the Holy Grail by fiscal conservatives for generations; as Smith noted, Thomas Jefferson complained about debt. More recently, Ronald Reagan demanded one and Newt Gingrich added it to his “Contract with America” a dozen years later. (Reagan was quoted from the floor Thursday; Gingrich was not.)
But opponents, including a raft of economists, have fought against an amendment not only because of the cuts it would require but because it would be inflexible in times of war or national crisis.
For decades, efforts to pass the amendment have been thwarted by the need to reach the two-thirds threshold demanded for a change in the Constitution. So it was Thursday, when the vote was 233 to 184.
Only six Republicans voted against it and only seven Democrats voted for it — precisely as members predicted.
But each side got something it wanted: a chance to criticize the other.