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Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution Relative to Requiring a Balanced Budget

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. VITTER. Mr. President, I too rise in strong support of the balanced budget amendment--the strong, meaningful, balanced budget amendment presented on this side of the aisle because it is an important, necessary effort to rein in the biggest economic problem and threat we have facing us.

I want to dovetail and expand on some of Senator Paul's comments, with which I certainly agree.

First of all, I hope it is perfectly clear that our debt--our growing, unsustainable level of debt--is a clear and present danger and an immediate danger to our Republic, to our democracy, to our economy, and to our future.

Overspending has been a problem for quite a while in Washington. It has been a problem under Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses. But forever it was a problem because we were passing on these big debt figures, this big burden to our kids and grandkids, and we were kicking the can down the road. It was a problem for the future which we should correct now but largely a problem for the future.

As Senator Paul said, that is not true anymore. It is an immediate threat right now. It is not a question of just our kids and grandkids; it is a question of next month, next year, whether we avoid a crisis, as is brewing in Europe, which could be the biggest hit to our economy since the Great Depression, bigger than what we went through in 2008. So this issue is an immediate threat, and it is not some esoteric issue about balance sheets. Again, as Senator Paul said, it is an immediate threat to the health of our economy, to the prospect and ability of Americans, including young Americans coming out of college, to get good jobs, to settle into good careers.

The second thing, which I hope is obvious, is that to get ahold of this problem, to deal with this threat, Congress needs enforced discipline. We need a fiscal straitjacket because we have proven, unfortunately, over and over, under Democratic and Republican majorities, under Democratic and Republican Presidents, that we are not going to do it on our own. We need the enforced discipline--the fiscal straitjacket, if you will--of a balanced budget amendment.

Why do I say this? Well, even knowing the threat we face right now, what does Congress do? Congress passes a debt plan. We pass cuts. While the so-called cuts of $2.1 trillion sounds like a lot of money--it is in some sense--it is largely cuts to the growth of government spending. Even under this plan that Congress recently enacted, we are still racking up new debt. We are still adding on $7 trillion to our already unsustainable level of debt in the next decade, increasing it 50 percent, from $15 trillion to $22 trillion. That is the best we can do without enforced discipline even in the crisis atmosphere we have now, even with the understanding we have now. I hope that proves we need this enforced discipline. The balanced budget amendment Republicans have put forward gives us that discipline we need.
First of all, I wish to compliment so many who have worked with me on it--Senator Hatch, Senator Lee, many others. I was in the working group, and I was in several meetings to get the details right because the devil is in the details. We don't need a fig leaf. We don't need a talking point. We need a balanced budget constitutional amendment that will work.

The details are right in this proposal, and it will work. Why do I say this? Well, within 5 years of ratification, under the amendment, Congress must pass a budget, the President must submit a proposal that is balanced, but not only that, the size of the Federal Government is limited to 18 percent of GDP. That is the long-term historical average of revenues in modern history. That is where we need to be. That is not my decision; that is not the decision of a single Member of Congress; that is the average of where revenues have been in the modern period.

It requires a strong supermajority to ensure that we don't continue the practice of exceeding spending caps with gimmicks and emergency spending for things that are not truly emergencies. For instance, a two-thirds vote of both Houses is required for a specific deficit for a fiscal year. A majority vote is required for a specific deficit when we have a declared war, and it needs to be a declared war in that instance. A three-fifths vote is required for a deficit during a military conflict and--this is important--with the requirement specifically that that is ``necessary by the identified conflict.'' In other words, the overage from a balanced budget is only for that conflict, not just a general exemption. A two-thirds vote of each House is required to increase taxes, and that is important so that this is not just a mechanism for ever-increasing tax rates that will quickly stagnate the economy. A three-fifths vote of each House is required to increase the debt limit, which is also important.

The details are important. I am confident we have gotten the details right in this proposal.

We also have a Udall proposal, a Democratic balanced budget constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, I think that gets the details very wrong. I am pleased that Senator Udall and Democratic colleagues on the other side are committed to the notion of a balanced budget constitutional amendment. That is important, and that is progress. But the devil is in the details, and I am afraid they got some of those details very, very wrong. For instance, there is a huge loophole exemption for whenever the country is in a military conflict--not just a formally declared war but any military conflict. Unfortunately, we are going to be in that situation for a lifetime under the present war against terror, so that is a huge, gaping loophole. Under that loophole, the amount beyond a balanced budget which is allowed isn't specific to that conflict, it is just a general exemption. So it is a big loophole.

There are other loopholes too. Social Security is completely exempt from this structure. I think that is a big mistake because that is part of our budget situation and because we need this very enforced discipline to fix and to save Social Security. That is one of the top items I want to fix and save. That is one of the first places we need this enforced discipline to fix and save Social Security.

I urge all of my colleagues to come together behind this important and necessary enforcement tool. The American people recognize the problem. They recognize this--a strong, meaningful balanced budget amendment--as an important part of the solution. They want us to act in a positive way, and I urge that support for this balanced budget amendment and for that solution.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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