A Republican-led effort to pass a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution failed to win the needed two-thirds House majority, dealing a setback to advocates of aggressive fiscal reform.
Their goal was to make fiscal responsibility a constitutional mandate.
The vote Friday ran largely along party lines, with 261 supporters including 25 Democrats and all but four Republicans. That's 23 votes short of the amount needed to move the amendment forward.
Supporters have long touted the amendment as a way to curb Congress's runaway habits of spending more money than the government receives in taxes. For decades, federal deficits have been routine, with balanced budgets or surpluses occurring only occasionally.
In the late 1990s, the federal government ran surpluses for a few years when efforts at spending restraint coincided with a tax-revenue windfall from a strong economy. But in the past few years, a combination of tax cuts, wars, and a deep recession have resulted in record deficits.
While not successful, Friday's vote offered a test of how much traction the amendment has in Congress right now. Back in 1995, a similar measure passed the House with 300 votes in support, while falling just short of approval in the Senate.
“Since that time our national debt has grown by over $9 trillion, including nearly $4 trillion in new debt in just the last three years," Rep. Candice Miller (R) of Michigan said during floor debate Thursday. "It is time for this Congress to use the tools our Founding Fathers gave us to amend the Constitution to save further generations from the shackles of unsustainable debt."
The vote gives Republicans a talking point for elections a year from now. A CNN poll this summer found roughly 3-to-1 public support for such an amendment.
Critics of the idea, while agreeing that the nation faces a significant long-term fiscal challenge, argue that an amendment is neither needed nor prudent. They say the amendment would curb needed flexibility (being able to run deficits during hard times) and would damage the economy if austerity were imposed overnight.
More broadly, finance experts differ on whether the goal of balanced budgets is a good idea. The nation's ratio of debt to gross domestic product (GDP) could be reduced slowly, for example, without ever balancing a budget. That would occur if GDP grows faster than the public debt.
In a recent critique, Robert Greenstein and Richard Kogan of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities questioned one rationale often given for the amendment: that states and families have to balance their budgets, so the federal government should, too.
"While states must balance their operating budgets, they can borrow to finance their capital budgets — to finance roads, schools, and other projects," they said. "Families follow similar practices."
To conservative supporters, the benefit of an amendment would be to impose controls at a time when the public debt may be poised to keep soaring, in part due to costs related to baby boomer retirements. Backers say the nation's economy will grow faster if public debts can be significantly reduced, not merely stabilized as a share of GDP.
Voting on the amendment was something supporters sought, and won, in negotiations this summer over raising the nation's debt ceiling above $14 trillion.
The measure would have required that total spending for any fiscal year not exceed total receipts, but it provided for some flexibility.
A three-fifths majority of Congress could vote to run a deficit, such as during a recession. The amendment contained an exception for times of military conflict. And it said Congress would have until at least 2017 to bring the budget into balance, after a ratification process by states.