The timing seemed a bit discordant last week, when the House Judiciary Committee began considering a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, just as Congress moved to pass its fourth tax cut in as many years.
A week later, the committee has not finished its work on the legislation, and the GOP House leadership has decided to drop the issue indefinitely, fearing that any spotlight on the burgeoning deficit would backfire politically.
The balanced budget amendment was a cornerstone of the Republicans' "Contract With America" 10 years ago, and halting efforts to resurrect it has underscored party divisions over a budget deficit that will reach $422 billion this year.
Last year, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) promised Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) a vote on the amendment before the House adjourns for the 2004 elections. But before DeLay could push an amendment to a House vote, Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) demanded that his panel draft the legislation first.
Last Wednesday's drafting session turned into a fiasco, members from both parties said. Democrats ridiculed the GOP majority, which has controlled Congress and the White House for most of the past four years while record budget surpluses turned to record deficits. Even some Republicans conceded that their hearts were not in it. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he had not taken it "as a very serious discussion."
"We can limit [deficits] on our own," said Flake, a Judiciary Committee member. "We in Congress ought to be embarrassed by what has happened. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves."
After the committee broke up for a vote on the House floor, only a few members bothered to straggle back. Without a quorum to complete the legislation, the committee adjourned. Now, Sensenbrenner has decided that the panel has other priorities, according to committee spokesman Jeff E. Lundgren.
"I'm not optimistic we'll get back to it, given the limited amount of time left and the members' other priorities," he said.
Deficit hawks were amazed that the GOP even tried, after Congress had squandered a $236 billion surplus recorded in 2000. Since 2001, overall government spending has risen 23 percent. Defense spending at Congress's discretion has increased 48 percent, while non-defense spending has jumped 27 percent. Meantime, taxes have been cut four times, at a price tag of $1.9 trillion over 10 years. House and Senate negotiators began work yesterday on a major corporate tax cut that could be wrapped up by the end of next week.
Tax cuts account for 29 percent of the swing from surpluses to deficits over the past three years, according to White House budget documents.
"The idea that the balanced budget amendment could even be taken up by the Judiciary Committee almost defies description," steamed Stanley E. Collender, a federal budget analyst at Financial Dynamics Business Communications. "The cynicism in the whole effort is just astounding."
But Istook strongly defended the push. He said it could still come up for a House vote when Congress returns for a lame-duck session after the elections. The spending growth of the past three years shows that Congress needs to be constrained by constitutional limits on its power of the purse, he said.