Snatching budget defeat from jaws of victory
Author: Miller Hudson - July 29, 2011 - Updated: July 29, 2011
Thirty years ago Colorado’s Republican leadership would run a legislative resolution each election year demanding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No one took this exercise very seriously. It was well understood the effort was simply a political ‘gotcha’ that allowed Republican challengers in swing districts to flog Democratic incumbents who voted against these bi-annual budget balancing proposals. There was no realistic chance that a constitutional amendment would ever achieve the two-thirds majorities required in both houses of what was then a seemingly permanent Democratic Congress, or, alternatively, that three fourths of state legislatures would request such a change. This was political theater, pure and simple.
In 1980, George Boley, a crusty remnant of the shrinking Depression era ‘rancher wing’ of the Colorado Democratic Party and I were the only two House Democrats to join the Republican majority in support of their balanced budget resolution. While George’s vote didn’t surprise anyone, as a Denver Democrat, my vote was sufficiently heretical that I felt compelled to go to the microphone and explain my vote. Today, I wish I’d kept my notes since their content proved prescient. The crux of my argument grew out of my personal conviction that it doesn’t really matter which party serves in a Congressional majority, they will both produce whopping budget deficits. Specifically, pointing to the then impending candidacy of Ronald Reagan, I predicted that a Republican administration would simply distribute fiscal favors to a different group of clients than Democrats, and that substantial federal deficits would roll on unabated. So they did.
When I returned to my seat, one of my Democratic colleagues whispered to me, “If you’re not careful Miller, that kind of talk will get you a primary challenge!” While there was grumbling among some of our more leftward partisans, my apostasy got swept under the rug, at least, in part, because there was zero chance that there would ever be a genuine balanced budget amendment. My vote did win me the ‘maverick Denver Democrat’ title that followed me for the remainder of my legislative service. Consequently, I was surprised in recent months when both of Colorado’s Democratic Senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, began making discreet noises about their support for constitutional budget constraints. The public pummeling I expected for them has failed to materialize.
Today, far more Democrats than are generally acknowledged have reached the conclusion that not only are Republicans getting the best of the spending argument, but they have managed to do this despite the fact that it has been Republican administrations which have run up the bulk of our national debt. This has produced a lose-lose political result for Democrats. We take the blame, while Republicans spend the money. But, now that Democrats are coming around to the recognition that some kind of fiscal handcuffs would be advisable for Congress, Republicans are suddenly determined to up their ante.
Now it’s “…cut, cap and balance!” In case you haven’t been following the budget debate closely this is a shorthand description of Republican demands that any increase in the federal debt limit be accompanied by budget cuts, a spending cap on future spending linked to a specific percentage of GDP (ostensibly 19.9 percent, but effectively 18.6 percent), and approval of a balanced budget amendment, complete with a requirement for a two-thirds approval of all future tax increases. In other words, as a practical matter, there would never be another tax hike, thereby locking in all current federal tax breaks and loopholes benefiting you know who — the powerful, the corporate, the wealthy, and the well lawyered.
The budget proposals of three decades ago merely required a balanced federal budget, but left Congress with its full array of legislative powers, as set forth in the Constitution, to make decisions regarding taxes and expenditures. Those proposals also included the authority to disregard spending limits with the approval of 60 percent of members in case of war, recession or other emergencies. In other words, these amendments included fairly flexible restrictions.
Now that Democrats are discussing comparable solutions, Congressional Republicans appear hell bent on overreaching. Instead of enlisting converts like Udall and Bennet, they seem determined to run them out of the room. Rather than strike a deal the public realizes is desperately needed, they are yakking up the same kind of procedural mechanisms that drove California into legislative gridlock and looming bankruptcy. Governor Schwarzenegger showed the good sense to persuade voters into repealing the more onerous of these requirements, but the Golden Bears are still a long way from putting their fiscal house in order. Mandated super majorities have proven to empower minority opinion at the expense of common sense.
Consequently, a tide of opposition to all federal budget-balancing proposals is rapidly rising. The sheer lunacy of Tea party demands is playing into the hands of these opponents and seems likely to destroy a fleeting opportunity for fiscal sanity that mainline Republicans have long coveted.
Miller Hudson ran for the Colorado Legislature from northwest Denver in 1978, and served two terms.