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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is leading the charge for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, saying the move is necessary because Washington politicians refuse to embrace fiscal discipline.
"There are some who say we don't need for Congress to propose an amendment to the Constitution," Lee told WND. "We just need Congress to do its job and balance its budget. I understand that argument. It has a certain appeal to it, and yet experience has taught us that Congress doesn't consider that part of its job. Congress will avoid balancing it's own budget again and again just as it has over the years. That's why we're now $16.5 trillion in debt, and that's exactly why we need this amendment."
Lee said his amendment is pretty straightforward. Congress would be required to limit spending to match the amount of revenues and any additional spending would require an overwhelming consensus.
"What this amendment says is that if the federal government wants to spend more money than it has, it has to approve that spending by a super majority instead of by a mere simple majority, which is what happens now," Lee said. "It would make it possible but rare and relatively difficult for Congress to continue spending beyond its means."
Specifically, the proposed amendment would require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to approve deficit spending, higher taxes or an increase in the debt ceiling. It would also limit federal spending to 18 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.
The proposal also includes a mechanism to ensure congressional compliance. Any member of Congress would have the power to seek judicial enforcement of the amendment provided they have the written permission from just one-third of either chamber of Congress.
Before a super majority is required on deficit spending, a super majority would be required to approve the amendment in both the House and Senate.
In the wake of the 2011 Budget Control Act, the GOP version of a balanced-budget amendment attracted just 47 of the 67 votes needed. While he admits passage is an uphill climb, Lee believes approval is possible.
"In the last Congress, we had a total of 67 votes in the Senate for a balanced-budget amendment. It's just that they weren't all on the same amendment proposal," said Lee, who notes polling suggests 75 percent of Americans support a balanced-budget amendment. "We had all 47 Republicans in the Senate at the time behind the Republican proposal, and we had 20 behind a Democratic proposal. You add those together and you have 67. So there are enough votes to get a balanced-budget amendment passed, but we just don't have 67 all behind the same proposal."
Republicans are generally more supportive of the idea than Democrats, but some in the GOP are leery of the timing of Lee's effort. They contend the amendment has no chance of passing but will give Democrats from Republican-leaning states the chance to cast a vote that gives voters the impression they embrace fiscal discipline.
"I understand the argument. I just disagree with it," Lee said. "At the end of the day, if we don't try every time we think something's a stretch or every time we think a particular legislative initiative is going to meet with some resistance, if we don't try then we'll never get anything done. We'll never succeed. I refuse to capitulate based on the fact that it's not yet apparent how we're going to get the votes we need in order for this to pass."
If the proposed amendment were to find approval by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, it would then be considered by the states. Ratification by 38 states would required to enshrine the amendment in the Constitution. It has been amended 27 times, most recently in 1990.
In the meantime, major congressional debates will unfold over extending the debt ceiling and how to avoid massive defense cuts through sequestration. Lee said Republicans have very clear priorities when it comes to addressing the nation's mounting debt.
"Republicans want reform. We know that we can't balance the budget overnight, but we also know that we have to have a budget in order to have a balanced budget," Lee said. "We're pushing for both houses to pass a budget. We're going to continue to insist for spending reforms moving forward as a condition for any further debt limit extensions or suspensions.
"What I've long insisted we need is some kind of permanent, structural spending reform, one that can stand the test of time and that won't be easy for Congress to back out of. A balanced-budget amendment certainly fits that description. There are other ways we're always looking for that we can bring about permanent spending reform."
As for the looming showdown over sequestration, Lee is frustrated that the government is even in this position, but he is adamantly opposed to President Obama's push to raise more revenue by taking away tax breaks for wealthier Americans.
"I've never been a fan of the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act. It's one of the reasons I voted against the Budget Control Act," said Lee. "I think it's very unfortunate that our defense system should have to pay such a disproportionately large share of the cuts that need to be made.
"The fact that the president is now saying these either happen or we're going to raise taxes again I think is unacceptable. I don't think raising taxes is the answer and I'm certainly going to resist any efforts there."
Lee said there is a sensible solution in the short term on sequestration, one the House of Representatives has already pursued.
"Last year, the House of Representatives passed a series of offsets, targeted spending cuts that brought about the same level of spending reform, but did so without disproportionately cutting into defense spending. I think that's what we need and I'd like to see the House pass that again this year and I'd like to see the president sign it after the Senate passes it."