It’s unsurprising that the state of the federal budget is perhaps the longest-running issue in US politics. “Congress, White House in Budget Clash” is a headline that could have run in the time of the tricorn hat.
But what about a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget? Is that a new thing or an old idea repurposed for modern times?
You wouldn’t be reading about it here if it were not the latter. Tacking a black-ink requirement onto the supreme law of the land is a proposal that has bounced around Washington since Franklin Roosevelt was spending us out of the Great Depression.
Or even earlier, if you consider Thomas Jefferson serious on this issue. In 1798 Jefferson wrote that the only way to rein in the spending of the John Adams administration was an amendment to prohibit the federal government from incurring debt.
Senator Tydings was a Maryland Democrat with an independent streak as wide as the Susquehanna River at his hometown of Havre de Grace. He opposed FDR’s New Deal because he thought it profligate. So in 1935 he introduced what the Congressional Research Service (CRS) calls “the first measure designed effectively to require the federal budget to be balanced.” It banned new appropriations in excess of revenues, and required existing debt to be liquidated within 15 years.
We’ll pop the suspense right now – it didn’t pass.
Representative Knutson was a Minnesota Republican who, prior to his election to Congress, was a newspaper editor. In 1936 he introduced what CRS dubs the “first constitutional amendment that would have required a balanced budget.”
Knutson’s idea was to set a per-capita limit on US debt during peacetime. This didn’t fly with lawmakers either. But in the past 60 years the idea has kept cropping up. Since then an amendment has been the subject of Senate hearings in eight different Congresses. The House has considered it seven times.
Balanced budget amendments have made it to a floor vote in the Senate five times, and in the House four times, according to CRS. The Senate passed a version in 1982, but it failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. The House passed a version in 1995, but it failed in the Senate.
And that’s where the legislative history stands. So far.