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Public Statements

Proposing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. GOODLATTE. I thank the chairman for yielding.

Mr. Speaker, this chart tells the story. We have had a number of opportunities over the years to pass balanced budget amendments to the United States Constitution. It's not my idea; it's not a new idea. But as we've gone through time, we've managed debt. Now, as the chairman just noted, in the last 15 years the debt has tripled.

But looking ahead, this chart, which shows the ratio of our debt to our gross domestic product, and shows that by 2080 it will be nine times the total economic output of our country, indicates that what some on the other side have said simply is not the case.

Congress has not made the tough decisions. We have overpromised the American people, and the fact of the matter is, now we need to have something in the Constitution that the American people expect and demand of us. And that is a balanced budget amendment.

Now, we have lots of different balanced budget amendments that have been proposed in this Congress, I think 18 of them that I've seen thus far. And some ask for more stringent requirements--which I very much like--limiting the ability to balance this budget by putting a heavier burden on the American people through taxes. Capping the amount of money that we spend--certainly something that I also think we need to be cognizant of.

Others have said let's take certain things off the table, like Social Security or capital spending or disaster spending.

This balanced budget amendment, which passed this House with 300 votes, including 72 Democrats, strikes the right balance. It enshrines in our Constitution the principle that we should live within our means but gives future Congresses the flexibility to, in times of national emergency, have some years that are not balanced. That, I think, is a reality that we have to deal with.

But the fact of the matter is that in the last 50 years, since 1961, this Congress has balanced the budget of this Nation six times. It should be the other way around. There are certainly 6 years in those 50 that were crises in which you might say we should not balance the budget this year.

But when the gentleman from New York says that in good times we should pay down the debt, and in tough times we should borrow, that has not been what has happened because most of those 50 years have been good times.

Now, there's another important point to make here. Any amendment to the United States Constitution has to, by its very nature, be bipartisan. It requires a two-thirds majority. And many of my friends on the other side of the aisle have worked very hard to build support on their side of the aisle for this. I especially want to thank Peter DeFazio and Jim Cooper. Many Members, the Blue Dogs, have endorsed this balanced budget amendment. But it is necessary to have a bipartisan approach to this.

And you know what? This is a bipartisan problem. There have been Republican Presidents and Democratic Presidents, Republican Congresses and Democratic Congresses that have contributed to those 44 years when we've run deficits.

So now today we come and ask for a bipartisan solution to this problem, a solution that, depending upon the poll, 75 to 80 percent of the American people support.

Congress continues to prove it cannot make the tough decisions on its own. The budget has only been balanced six times in 50 years. The American people know what it means to balance their budgets. They are surprised that the Congress does not have this requirement. State governments do--49 out of 50 States, most of which have it in their constitutions. Local governments have to balance their budgets. Families and businesses have to live within their means, and they can't go more than a few years without living within their means.

But to run up a $15 trillion debt which, divided by the population of our country, means that the average person today owes more in debt based upon their share of the government's debt than they have in personal income, is a disgrace. This is not only an economic issue. This is not only something that we should be imposing upon future Congresses for economic reasons. This is also a moral issue.

This is wrong to borrow money year after year after year, over a trillion dollars in each of the last 3 years, so that today the average dollar spent by the Federal Government, 42 percent of it, by far the largest share, is borrowed against our children's and grandchildren's future.

And where does that lead us? It leads us to where Europe is.


Mr. GOODLATTE. This chart shows government debt as a percentage of GDP for the United States and five European countries--Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Greece. When Greece first got into their problem last year, they were at 120 percent of GDP. That's what their debt totaled. Already just a little over a year later, it is 152 percent of GDP because their economy is shrinking because of irresponsibility on the part of their government.

The United States just this week crossed the 100 percent line. The United States owes as much in debt as we have in the total economic output of this Nation for 1 year.

It is time to put a halt to this, and the best way to do it is to enshrine in our Constitution a principle we all understand, we all live by, and that is you cannot live like this, you cannot live beyond your means year after year after year.

I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join this bipartisan effort to enshrine in our Constitution a principle sought by the vast majority of the American people.


Mr. GOODLATTE. I thank the chairman, and I just want to make it very clear that some inaccurate assertions have been made about the protection of Social Security and highway trust funds.

The funds can be spent each year, and then any excess funds that need to be retained can be put into a rainy day fund. And so the Social Security trust fund or another type of fund like that is perfectly permissible under this provision. What is not permissible is continuing to run up debt year after year after year, and that is what endangers Social Security and Medicare and important programs for our senior citizens, and that is why this amendment is needed.


Mr. GOODLATTE. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself 30 seconds to complete the record.

As I said in my remarks earlier, Presidents of both parties and Congresses of both parties have much to explain in terms of the lack of the balanced budgets over the last 50 years. Only six times in 50 years have they been balanced. But here is the record: of the 13 of those 50 years that Republicans controlled the Congress, they only balanced the budget four times. Of the 37 years that Democrats controlled the Congress, during that time, they only balanced the budget twice.

It is now my pleasure to yield 2 minutes to the gentlewoman from Tennessee (Mrs. Blackburn).


Mr. GOODLATTE. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself 30 seconds to answer the question, what do the 99 percent want? Well, CNN asked them in July. The answer was 74 percent favored a balanced budget amendment; 74 percent of men, 75 percent of women, 76 percent of white voters, 72 percent of nonwhite voters, 72 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds, 74 percent of 35- to 49-year-olds, 75 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, 79 percent of 65 and older voters want a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution.


Mr. GOODLATTE. As the gentleman from Utah correctly noted, it requires the same supermajority of 60 percent to not balance the budget or to raise the debt limit. Quite frankly, if you have a constitutional amendment in place that requires a balanced budget, you're going to generate surpluses most years, and therefore raising the debt limit will occur less and less frequently. But those two requirements are in place in order to have an enforcement mechanism so that Congresses of the future will not do what Congresses of the past have been doing.


Mr. GOODLATTE. The answer is, yes, it requires a supermajority to raise the debt limit and a supermajority to not balance the budget, which would be an unusual thing in the future because in the last 50 years, it's only been balanced six times.

Mr. CONYERS. Then let me ask my colleague this question: Does it presently require a supermajority to raise the debt limit?

Mr. GOODLATTE. No, there is no such requirement today.

Mr. CONYERS. Thank you. It isn't. And there would be in this bill, would it not?

Mr. GOODLATTE. Absolutely.

Mr. CONYERS. And the gentleman supports a supermajority to raise the debt limit?

Mr. GOODLATTE. Very much so.


Mr. GOODLATTE. I don't agree with that at all. In fact, in the greatest debt limit crisis you might ever say we've had, which was just this summer, close to, if not in excess of, 60 percent of the Members of the House voted to raise the debt limit. So I don't believe that future Congresses would be any more irresponsible. I think future Congresses are likely to be more responsible than prior Congresses because we have not balanced the budget for but six times in the last 50 years.

We have a $15 trillion debt.

Mr. JACKSON of Illinois. May I reclaim the time?

Mr. Chairman, in the event that Congress fails to act, obviously under this amendment the courts would be empowered to provide remedial orders for when Congress failed to provide a balanced budget. The decisions would then force the courts to be political in nature.

Is it the gentleman's opinion that the judicial branch and that members of the court are in a better position to make judgements about congressional budgets and about the Nation's budgets than Members of Congress?

Mr. GOODLATTE. It's my opinion that Members of the United States Congress will uphold the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And that scenario will be very unlikely to occur; and when it does, judges will, as they historically have on matters involving the internal business of the Congress, exercise judicial restraint.


Mr. GOODLATTE. No, I very definitely do not share the view offered by my good friend and colleague from Virginia (Mr. Scott).

The fact of the matter is the downgrade that we received in the bond ratings was due to the fact that we have a $15 trillion debt and the Congress has not come to agreement on sufficient reductions in that debt to satisfy the bond rating agencies. A balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution is exactly what's needed to put that kind of pressure on the Congress to make real and meaningful reductions in our deficits.


Mr. GOODLATTE. I yield myself 30 seconds just to say to the gentleman that the only time you're going to need to raise the debt limit is on an occasion when you've already voted by a supermajority to not balance the budget. Therefore, under those circumstances, it seems entirely reasonable to me that you'd also have a supermajority to raise the debt limit.


Mr. GOODLATTE. I yield myself an additional 30 seconds to respond to the gentleman.

I will just say to the gentleman that the doctrines that the court has imposed upon internal operations of the Congress have historically called for judicial restraint, so it will be very rare, in my opinion, that you will find courts involved in this process. I believe that there is very good material, which we have put into the record in the Judiciary Committee, that would reflect upon just that process. This is something that the Congress has to resolve for itself, and that's why we need it in the Constitution, because the Congress does not resolve it now.


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