-- WASHINGTON — The summer deal to raise the nation's borrowing limit also brought a promise that Congress would vote on a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.
Now the question is: Which balanced-budget amendment?
There are at least 18 proposed amendments pending in Congress, each with a different approach. Some put a cap on federal spending as a percentage of the economy. Some put roadblocks to raising taxes or raising the debt limit, and some protect Social Security. Most require the president to propose a balanced budget, and all have a clause allowing Congress to ignore the rules during war or national emergency.
"That's a really underappreciated point about this whole debate," says David Primo, a political scientist at the University of Rochester. "People will talk about constitutional amendments as if they're a monolithic whole, but there needs to be a lot more discussion about what the rule should look like."
The difficulty, Primo says, is finding an amendment strong enough to work but flexible enough to get the votes to pass. He argues that a weak balanced-budget amendment is worse than no amendment at all.
The House of Representatives has scheduled a vote in two weeks, but it hasn't settled on the language. The only thing settled is its title: "Joint resolution proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States."
"The overwhelming majority of the members of the Republican conference want to vote on a balanced-budget amendment that has a chance of passing," says Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who has been leading the effort in the House. That means an amendment without some of the provisions — such as hard limits on federal spending or roadblocks to raising taxes — added on to some proposals, he says.
Speaker of the House John Boehner says House leaders are "going to listen to our members about which version they would want us to vote on, and we've got no decision yet."
Goodlatte has sponsored two proposals. The first — the only version to pass out of committee — would require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes and would cap spending at 18% percent of the economy.The more popular, with 242 co-sponsors, would require a three-fifths vote by the House and Senate to spend more than revenue, or to raise the debt limit, but it would not have spending caps or require a supermajority to raise taxes. Currently, Congress needs only a simple majority to outspend revenue, or raise the debt limit.
The second Goodlatte proposal has some Democratic support, necessary because changing the Constitution needs a two-thirds majority in Congress. That's 290 votes in the House, meaning 48 Democrats would need to sign on if every Republican voted for it. Then, 67 senators and 38 states would have to approve it.
Most proposals allow Congress to rely on estimates to balance the budget. Critics say the estimates could be open to error. "Estimates are very often wrong," said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. "In the state of Michigan, where I served in the state Legislature, there was a lot of shuffling of money between one year and the other to balance the budget."
Amash proposes spending caps at the average of the last three years' revenue, adjusted for population and inflation. The effect would be to allow modest deficit spending in a recession and require surpluses in a growing economy.
Amash's proposal would have a 10-year phase-in period. It also would allow Congress to bypass the balanced budget for any reason — not just military —with a two-thirds vote.
"Ours is the most bipartisan proposal," Amash says, noting he has nine Democratic co-sponsors.
A Democratic proposal, by Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, would make it more difficult to cut Social Security benefits. His amendment would not take effect until 2021, the latest of any proposal
If Republicans push a vote on an amendment with spending caps, Cuellar says, the vote will be more about politics. "But if you're not looking at the 'p' of politics but the 'p' in policy, then let's go with a more moderate version and get some Democrats on board."
In the Senate, the least popular proposal is the one most likely to be voted on. That's because Democrats control the Senate, and only one Democrat has proposed a constitutional amendment: Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. His proposal would take Social Security out of the budget and prohibit tax cuts for millionaires unless the budget is balanced.
Another question: When could Congress get around it?
Most versions would allow more spending if the United States is engaged in military conflict that causes an imminent, serious threat to national security — but that could describe the last decade.
Primo says an amendment should have high thresholds to get around it. "When you get into things like definitions of wars, you allow Congress to create loopholes," he said. "They want a rule that they can manipulate."
The Constitution can't — and shouldn't — anticipate every circumstance, argues Philip Joyce, a University of Maryland budget expert.
"You cannot possibly make a Constitutional amendment airtight — unless you want to make it 50 pages long, in which case it's sort of like the tax code," he says. "Even with a balanced budget amendment, all the heavy lifting would still be necessary. But if Congress could do that heavy lifting, an amendment wouldn't be necessary."