WASHINGTON ― After adding more than a trillion dollars to the national debt in the first 15 months of the Trump administration, House Republicans ― still insistent that they care about fiscal conservatism ― tried and failed on Thursday to take a symbolic step toward amending the Constitution to prevent deficits.
The balanced budget amendment fell far short of the requisite two-thirds majority needed for passage, with 233 lawmakers voting for it and 184 against it. Supporting it were 226 Republicans and seven Democrats, while six Republicans and 178 Democrats voted no.
While Republicans will point to the failed vote as another example of the fiscal recklessness of Democrats, the no votes on the Republican side largely came from conservatives. Some of these naysayers argued that the amendment didn’t go far enough. Others said they viewed the vote as an attempt to depict the GOP as the party of fiscal restraint after the Republican-controlled Congress approved new spending and tax cuts that nonpartistan estimates predict will add trillions to the debt in years to come.
“Passing a weak constitutional balanced budget amendment only four legislative days after ramming through massive deficit spending is quite an audacious stunt,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told HuffPost, referring to the $1.3 trillion omnibus passed in late March. “My colleagues have already demonstrated with the passage of the omnibus that they aren’t serious about balancing the budget.”
Massie was among those voting against the amendment.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) voted for the measure, even while terming it political cover after the GOP’s spending spree for this fiscal year. “If you were serious about trying to prevent a very dangerous and debilitating bankruptcy of the United States of America, the votes were in February and March,” Brooks said, referring to the omnibus vote and an earlier continuing resolution setting the spending limits.
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), the only House Republican to vote against the $1.5 trillion tax-cut bill passed late last year, told HuffPost that while he supported the amendment, Republicans had given up on true fiscal conservatism. “It’s not the party that I joined in ’92,” Jones said.
The amendment would have required Congress to balance the budget in five years, a goal that would require massive cuts to entitlement spending and likely some tax hikes. But, again, the amendment was never intended to be enacted. Instead, it’s a pure messaging vote after a year in which the Congressional Budget Office says Republicans packed on an additional $1.6 trillion in debt over the next 10 years ― and an additional $2.6 trillion if the new tax cuts are made permanent.
But as much as a handful of conservatives were willing to acknowledge the hypocrisy of the GOP’s actual legislative actions amid the party’s stated desires to balance the budget, plenty of Republicans defended voting for the omnibus and the tax cuts and the balanced budget amendment.
Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), who voted for all three, used the familiar Republican rhetoric that the government has a spending problem and not revenue problem. He said a balanced budget amendment would force both sides to the negotiating table.
“It’s easy to vote for tax cuts,” Woodall said. “It’s hard to vote to cut spending. Voting for a balanced budget amendment allows members to recognize the truth of those things.”
But it’s difficult for lawmakers to recognize those truths when they reject nonpartisan analyses.
Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), for instance, refused to accept the CBO’s new projections, which forecast a return of trillion-dollar deficits and a national debt approaching $29 trillion over the next 10 years. Marshall called the budget scorekeeper “the worst financial adviser I’ve ever seen.”
When HuffPost raised the point that the CBO says the tax bill will add $194 billion just this year to budget deficit, Marshall rejected the claim. “They’re wrong on that one,” he said. “They don’t take into account at all what the growth in the economy is going to do.”
When HuffPost noted that the CBO did, in fact, take into account increased growth, Marshall still contended the CBO didn’t.
That’s a likely preview of how Republicans on this year’s campaign trail intend to justify adding trillions to the debt while insisting that they’re still spending taxpayer dollars responsively ― by rejecting simple truths and hoping voters never catch on.