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Washington • Maybe the 13th time is the charm.
After attempting, and failing, a dozen times to amend the Constitution to require Congress to balance the budget every year, Sen. Orrin Hatch is drumming up support for another try.
The Utah Republican is partnering with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to push a balanced budget amendment that Hatch is optimistic will pass now as the country finds itself $14 trillion in debt.
"Everybody in this country knows that we have a fiscal crisis and it's getting worse," Hatch says. "People are getting serious about it, even Democrats are frightened. They know that this country cannot sustain the current spending binge."
The United States hasn't balanced its budget since the 1990s, and the Congressional Budget Office has said that if federal spending isn't curtailed, the national debt will rise to nearly 90 percent of the gross domestic product within the decade.
On the other side, economists say that such an amendment a change to the Constitution rejected since its founding would have forced Congress to roll back spending during the economic downturn of the late 2000s, tossing hundreds of thousands of people out of work and driving the country into another great depression.
The arguments behind the amendment haven't changed much over time. Hatch came within one vote in 1997 of passing the constitutional amendment in the Senate.
A burgeoning national debt, however, has given proponents what they believe is the best chance for passage in a long time.
The more people hear about the trillions upon trillions worth of red ink, the more they want to do something, say supporters.
"It's sort of desperately needed," says Larry Hart, a lobbyist for the American Conservative Union, which backs Hatch's bill. "What we used to look upon as bad deficits have become potentially catastrophic. It has been shown over and over again over the years that it is absolutely impossible with the shifts in congressional and White House control to keep the country in a sane fiscal path."
If Hatch's bill won approval of two-thirds of both the House and Senate and then 38 state legislatures, it would require Congress to pass a budget in which revenue didn't outpace spending, unless three-fifths of each chamber voted to waive that restriction.
It would also cap the annual budget at 20 percent of the nation's GDP.
All federal tax increases would need to be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate, though any of these limitations could be waived during a declaration of war or if Congress deemed them a risk to national security.
Hatch's new colleague from Utah, Sen. Mike Lee, backs the proposed amendment and says it's a top priority this year.
"Politicians love to talk about the future, about children and grandchildren, yet for far too long they have been passing the financial responsibility for reckless government spending to Americans who haven't yet been born and whose parents have not even met," Lee said.
But there are arguments on the other side that a balanced budget amendment would have thrust the United States further into economic turmoil had it been in place as the financial crisis struck in 2008.
"A balanced budget amendment is a terrible idea and I think the last two years are a great example of why," says Michael Ettlinger, vice president for economic policy at the Center for American Progress. "If the government didn't run enormous deficits the last two years, we might well have fallen into a great depression and not just a great recession."
Ettlinger notes that with skittish consumers and dwindling credit, the federal government was the only major force of demand in the last few years, a point that drove up the debt but also halted a much more threatening scenario.
"Just imagine that $1.3 trillion hadn't been put out there to, you know, keep policemen on the beat, teachers teaching, [to] build roads, repair bridges," says Ettlinger. "If those things hadn't been allowed, it would have been a disaster."
To prove that point, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman noted that under new conservative control, the British are considering a bold balanced budget plan that goes in the completely wrong direction.
"It would cut government employment by 490,000 workers the equivalent of almost 3 million layoffs in the United States at a time when the private sector is in no position to provide alternative employment," Krugman wrote recently in his syndicated column. "It would slash spending at a time when private demand isn't at all ready to take up the slack."
For his part, Hatch says he understands that sacrifices may be the only way to restore what he says is fiscal sanity.
"I'd hate to get to where we have to throw a lot of people out of work but what else are you going to do, let the country go down the drain?" Hatch says. "This is an ironclad way to force our nation to change things."
The legislation, if approved by two-thirds in Congress and three fourths of state legislatures, would:
Require Congress to submit a balanced budget each year unless three-fifths approved a waiver.
Direct the Treasury to use surpluses to pay down the nation's debt.
Require all tax increases to be approved by two-thirds votes.
Allow Congress to waive the balanced budget requirement during years when a declaration of war is in effect.
Source • Office of Sen. Orrin Hatch