Boehner Won't Rule Out 'Balanced Budget Amendment' That Permits Unlimited Federal Spending

Matt Cover | October 27, 2011 | 3:44pm EDT
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House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

( – House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated at a press briefing Thursday that the House Republican leadership is not ruling out the possibility that it will support a balanced budget amendment that does not cap federal spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product or require a supermajority in Congress to increase taxes.

The legislation to increase the federal debt limit--that Boehner negotiated with President Barack Obama in August--requires both houses of Congress to vote on a balanced budget amendment before the end of the year. However, the legislation does not specify what type of balanced budget amendment must be considered in that vote.

Conservative analysts have argued that an amendment to the Constitution that requires Congress to balance the federal budget but does not require Congress to limit federal spending to a set percentage of GDP or to muster supermajorities to raise taxes would be a formula for bigger government and higher taxes.

At Boehner's briefing today, asked the speaker: “There are two versions of a Balanced Budget Amendment, one that caps spending as a percentage of GDP and requires a supermajority to raise taxes, and one that doesn’t have the spending cap and the supermajority requirement. Many conservatives oppose the version that does not cap spending and does not require a supermajority. Has the House Republican leadership ruled out supporting the version that does not [cap spending]?”

In response, Boehner said the House Republican leadership had not yet decided which version of a balanced budget to bring up for a vote in the House.

“There are at least half a dozen different versions of a balanced budget amendment to our Constitution," Boehner said. "Many of us believe that a Balanced Budget Amendment is the ultimate enforcement mechanism to control spending here in Washington.

“As we approach this vote, the [majority] leader and I are going to listen to our members about which version they would want us to vote on, and we’ve got no decision yet, but we’re going to work with our members to make that decision.”

There are two primary versions of a balanced budget amendment.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). (AP photo)

One version, which conservative critics are calllng a "weak" BBA, merely requires that Congress balance the federal budget each year unless a supermajority votes to waive the requirement and run a deficit.

The second is the version envisioned in the Cut, Cap, and Balance legislation that the House passed earlier this year. That version called for capping federal spending at a percentage of GDP--18 percent was the figure cited by its authors--and required a two-thirds majority in both houses to pass a tax increase.

A BBA that did not cap federal spending or require a supermajority to increase taxes passed a GOP-controlled House in the 1995 and fell one vote short in the Senate.

This July, the House voted 234 to 190 to approve the Cut, Cap and Balance Act that would have conditioned any increase in the federal debt limit on Congress approving a balance budget amendment that limited federal spending as a percentage of GDP and required a two-thirds vote in both houses to increase taxes. The bill was stopped in the Senate when it was "tabled" by a 51 to 46 vote. 

In fiscal 2011, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the federal government spent 25.3 percent of GDP. That is the most in any year since World War II. In the fiscal years from 1997 through 2005, when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives under Democratic President Bill Clinton and then Republican President George W. Bush, federal spending never exceeded 20 percent of GDP.

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