The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans consider ‘balanced-budget amendment’ after adding more than $1 trillion to the deficit

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is expected to schedule a vote on a “balanced-budget amendment” not long after spearheading a tax law that dramatically drove up America's deficit. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

House Republicans are considering a vote on a “balanced-budget amendment,” a move that would proclaim their desire to eliminate the federal deficit even as they control a Congress that has added more than $1 trillion to it.

The plan is expected to have virtually no chance of passing, as it would require votes from Democrats in the Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Republican lawmakers have pushed for the vote as a way to signal to constituents ahead of the midterm elections that they have tried to reduce the nation's deficit.

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The amendment emerges out of an agreement brokered in the fall between House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, a senior GOP aide said. In October, Ryan agreed to hold a vote on the amendment in exchange for conservative members' support for a procedural budget move that was then used to pass the tax reform overhaul, said the aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about the negotiations.

In December, Republicans slashed the corporate tax rate and temporarily reduced taxes for individuals through the new tax law. The Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress's official scorekeeper, determined that the law will add more than $1 trillion to the nation's deficit over the next decade.

Earlier this month, Congress also approved a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that increased funding for the military, infrastructure and programs to combat the opioid crisis, among other spending priorities. And Republicans are also considering votes for more tax cuts, which would further drive up the nation's deficit.

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A vote on the balanced budget amendment, first reported by Politico, may be held in early April.

Congressional Democrats were quick to rip into the GOP over the proposed amendment. “House Republicans bringing up a balanced-budget amendment now is shameless. They just exploded our debt and deficits with more than $1 trillion of tax breaks for millionaires and corporations,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, said in a statement. “Now they’re trying to use a balanced-budget amendment to force massive cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs millions of families rely on.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a frequent critic of his party who is retiring at the end of this year, criticized the idea. "Instead of doing the real work, some will push this symbolic measure so they can feel good when they go home to face voters," Corker wrote on Twitter.

Republicans have not released details about the amendment, but previous versions have called for capping total spending at the median of previous years' revenue levels. The idea has had support from tea party conservatives, who swept to power in 2010, and other deficit hawks who say America's deficits are rising uncontrollably.

“There's all sorts of ways you could amend the Constitution, but the idea is a constitutional requirement that spending and revenue have to be in line,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a deficit-hawk organization.

Critics say the proposal would bind the federal government in the event of a crisis or economic downtown, making it impossible to cut taxes or raise spending to stimulate the economy in a recession.

“The economic problems with such an amendment are the most serious,” wrote Richard Kogan at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would raise serious risks of tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses.”