Leahy On Balanced Budget Amdt. Proposals: "Our Constitution Deserves Protection."
July 22, 2011
The Senate today defeated a proposal that would require Congress to approve a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. By a vote of 51-46, the Senate moved to table the bill, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this week. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) delivered the following remarks before the Senate vote.
Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On The Proposal Requiring An Amendment To The Constitution, H.R. 2560
July 22, 2011
Mr. President, unlike any Republican in the House or the Senate, I have voted for a balanced budget. We balanced the budget under President Clinton. Not only balanced the budget, but started paying down the national debt. He was able to leave hundreds of billions of dollars in surplus to his successor, who determined with Republican votes to go to war in Iraq and pay for the war with a tax cut. That’s why we had to borrow the money from China and Saudi Arabia.
Not a single Republican voted for a real balanced budget when they had a chance to. In fact, it passed in the Senate only because Vice President Gore came and broke the tie. I was proud to vote for that balanced budget. Not a gimmick, but a real balanced budget. We had to actually make tough choices. We did. We balanced it. We had a surplus.
But when you talk about amending our Nation’s fundamental charter, the Constitution of the United States, it’s not something Congress and the American people should feel forced to do in the face of a financial crisis. I take seriously my senatorial oath to support and defend the Constitution.
Now, I know that there are a lot of pressure groups demanding that elected representatives sign pledges about what they will and will not do. The pledge I follow, the one I was honored to make at the beginning of this Congress, is to uphold the Constitution. That’s what I intend to do as I represent the people of Vermont.
The House-passed bill, H.R.2560, which the Senate is now considering, claims to impose a balanced budget of future congresses but it doesn’t even contain the proposed constitutional amendment the supporters are seeking to adopt. Nor did the bill pass with two-thirds of the Republican-controlled House voting in favor. That threshold is what is required, of course, to pass a constitutional amendment. The House vote was more than 50 votes short of that necessary number.
The process by which this bill has been brought to the Floor of the Senate is an affront to the Constitution that we’re sworn to protect and defend. Instead, the House bill denies authority to meet the Nation’s obligations until Congress passes a type of constitutional amendment that will actually make it more difficult to reduce our national debt. That kind of constitutional blackmail has no place in a democracy, and no place in our laws.
It’s why the Founders did not include a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget or prohibition against incurring debt in our Constitution. They knew full well that would have been foolish and dangerous and self-defeating to the Nation they were seeking to establish. And I respect the wisdom of the Founders to uphold the Constitution, which has served this Nation so well for the last 223 years. Let us not be so vain to think we know better than the Founders what the Constitution should prescribe.
I reject the notion that for political reasons we need to rush consideration of an ill-conceived and evolving proposal for a constitutional amendment. I’m going to stand with the Founders. I’ll defend their work and our Constitution and oppose a proposed series of constitutional amendments which incidentally haven’t even had a hearing. Amend the Constitution and we haven’t even had a hearing on it. Amendments to the Constitution of the United States are permanent. They’re not bills or resolutions that can be abandoned or fixed. They are not just a bumper sticker or a sound bite. Each word matters to hundreds of millions of Americans and future generations.
I have never seen -- and I have been here 37 years – I’ve never seen the solemn duty of protecting the Constitution treated in such a cavalier manner. I wish that those who so say they revere the Constitution would show it the respect it deserves rather than treating it like a blog entry.
I am concerned how some in recent years have sought to impose their view by unilateral objection to compromise with minority obstruction. That has, at times, seemed to be the rule in the last few years. Some have tried to undermine the legitimacy of President Obama. Filibusters and requirements for supermajorities have become routine. They’ve stymied congressional action on the part of the American people.
This year should be a cautionary tale that convinces all Americans that the risks of default and ideological impasse to them, to interest rates, to financial markets, and to our household budgets are too great. We need only recall the game of chicken earlier this year with the Government shutdown. I cannot help but think, if we don’t take the steps we should, we will see our interest rates go up, we’ll spend hundreds of billions of dollars in extra interest to China, which they can spend on infrastructure, they can spend on medical research, they can spend on education; we won't have it here in the United States. That’s what the other side seems to want.
We’ve seen the danger that irresponsible brinkmanship can promote. We should guard against it. Building into the Constitution a supermajority requirement for fiscal policy invites political blackmail and gridlock. We’ve seen enough of that already.
The source of our budgetary problems does not lie with the Constitution. The Constitution remains sound. It is lacking the political courage to do what is right. The last time we balanced a budget, not a single Republican voted for that balanced budget. Yet it created enormous surpluses. These proposed constitutional amendments would not cut a single dime from the debt or Federal budget.
Rather than deal with our problems, some want to require that we deface the Constitution with a measure that will by its own terms not be effective for five years, if it were to be adopted by two-thirds of both houses, the Congress, and then ratified by three-fourths of the states. Put that another way -- at least three election cycles from now. We get our bumper stickers today, but we kick the can down the road three election cycles.
Congress has the power now to take steps to avoid a Government default, and get us on the path to rebalancing the budget, just as we did at the end of the Clinton administration. This debate is a distraction from the hard work and hard choices that need to be made. Proposed amendments to the Constitution are not just unnecessary, they’re unwise and dangerous. In my view, the House-passed bill, the proposed amendment, demeans our Constitution. Never in our history have we amended the Constitution, the work of our Founders, to impose budgetary restrictions or required supermajorities for passing legislation and now we're saying, let’s do it, let’s do it on a whim, let’s do it without any hearings, let’s do it because we can do it.
All Senators swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. That’s our duty and responsibility. The Constitution has allowed America to flourish, and adapt to new challenges. We have amended it only 17 times since the Bill of Rights. Our Constitution deserves protection. I stand with the Constitution today. I am going to support the motion to table this ill-conceived legislation.
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