The One That Got Away: The Story of the $8.2 Trillion Vote

A study of the National debt over the last thirty years proves that our Representatives are not responsible enough to continuing governing without the rules of the game being changed. Though much belabored, it bears repeating that the National Debt did not break the one trillion dollar threshold until the year 1982 and not until the fiscal year 2002 did it break six trillion. From 2002 to 2010 it more than doubled from $6.25 trillion to over $13 trillion dollars.

Changing the rules of the game in this case means the passing of some form of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. This is far from a new idea and most people, especially newcomers to the world of politics, would be shocked at how close we have come, even recently, to achieving it. In the 90s alone constitutional amendments involving balancing the budget came to serious Congressional votes at least once in six different years—1990, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997. In ‘92, ‘94, and ‘97 the Balanced Budget Amendment came up only a handful of votes short of achieving the two-thirds majority needed in both Houses.

Without getting too much into the weeds it is significant to note that the amendment in 1992 was sponsored by a Democrat—Charles Stenholm of Texas. In the House it garnered 116 of its 280 yes votes from Democrats with only 3 of its 153 no votes coming from Republicans (2) and Independents (1). One of the two attempts at passage in 1997 (S.J Res.12), though excluding Social Security, was not only sponsored by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan but was shockingly co-sponsored by both Diane Feinstein and Harry Reid. In light of their recent attitudes and votes on spending one can only guess at the numbers of skins each has had to shed to evolve their position from then to now.

As frustrating to the bill’s advocates as these votes were they were dwarfed by the events of 1995. The fate of the 1995 Balanced Budget Amendment, knowing what has transpired since, has to stand as the mother of all “the one that got away” stories. With the addition of just one more Senator’s vote the amendment would have passed, gone to the States for ratification, and the Federal Budget would have, by Constitutional mandate, been forced to be balanced as soon as 1997 and no later than 2002. From 1997 to 2010 our Federal Debt grew from $5.4 to $13.6 trillion dollars. This is an addition of $8.2 trillion that could have been avoided by changing this increase from being merely unconscionable to being unconstitutional. Adding to the agony is that, under intense pressure from President Clinton, six Senators that had voted for a nearly identical amendment in ‘94 switched to a no vote in ‘95. Among the six were Byron Dorgan, Diane Feinstein, and Harry Reid, who all, as noted before, would go on to sponsor and co-sponsor a similarly spirited Constitutional Amendment in 1997.

While the details of this history are ugly there also lies within it a glimmer of hope and perhaps a blueprint for future success. As sad as it is that constitutionally confining our Legislators is needed, it is equally as promising that achieving such a feat was that closely at hand. Resetting the same debate in 2011 includes facing the identical sticking points and opponents that killed the effort in the 90s, namely the inclusion of Social Security and the unions.

Though counter-productive I would favor excluding Social Security if this compromise was the difference between non-passage and passage. This makes strategic sense both because Social Security reform is better achieved as a separate issue and even with it excluded the amendment would make a massive difference. In terms of the union position of opposing due to potential cuts in wages and safety net services, I would not give an inch of concession. Here the truth is that, barring a sustained economic boom, these things will have to be reduced. The fact that the National debt has more than doubled since the last time this issue was hotly debated not only adds to the causes urgency but makes a public showdown with the unions increasingly winnable.

Also different this time around is a new proposal offered up by Representatives Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Mike Pence of Indiana. Like the Balanced Budget Amendments of the 90s, and most common sense solutions, it is very simple and consists of only a few paragraphs. The Spending Limit Amendment states that the total annual outlays of the Federal government shall not exceed 20% of the United States yearly economic output. The two exceptions to this being that Congress could provide for a specific increase with a two-thirds vote in each House and could waive the provision while a declaration of war was in effect.

Every serious thinking Conservative should begin their own investigation and analysis of this and other likeminded proposals. Legally binding pieces of legislation dealing with how Congress spends money will not only be at the forefront of political debate in the coming years, but is the one area that provides the Tea Party movement an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. Though failing in this effort in the 90s can be called “the one that got away,” coming up short this time around likely will rename the story “the one that broke the camel’s back.”

About the Author

Mr. Arnold is a long time constitutional conservative. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature from the University of Iowa. Over the last few years he has been involved in numerous political campaigns, most recently serving as campaign manager for an Iowa House candidate and serving as a city chair for Tom Latham. He is self-employed, running a small business in Ankeny, Iowa where he resides with his wife.


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