Will Congress ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance’?
A conservative budget proposal winds its way through Congress.


Andrew Stiles

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas) suggests that recent warnings from the S&P and Moody’s that the U.S. credit rating could be downgraded “unless substantial and credible agreement is achieved on a budget that includes long-term deficit reduction” have increased the appetite among voters and lawmakers alike for a substantial debt-reduction package that goes beyond the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts being discussed in negotiations with the White House.

What started out as the brainchild of freshmen and tea-party members — strongly supported by the likes of Club for Growth and Heritage Action — “Cut, Cap, and Balance” has quickly become a mainstream GOP position. Conservative senators including Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Mike Lee (R., Utah), and Rand Paul (R., Ky.) introduced “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation last week. On Thursday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and GOP conference chair Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) both signed on to the bill, a clear indication of the momentum building behind the proposal.

However, despite near-unanimous support within the GOP for “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” a critical stumbling block to its success will be actually passing — with the required two-thirds majorities — a balanced-budget amendment in either chamber. Even in the Republican-majority House, this could prove a tall order, as Republicans would need nearly one-fourth of the Democratic caucus to vote with them. Minority whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) — despite previously indicating his support for a BBA — has promised to whip aggressively against the measure. In the Senate, at least 19 Democrats would need to sign on, which seems even less likely. Many see a vote on a balanced-budget amendment, which is almost certain to fail, as a free political boost for moderate Democrats facing tough reelections in 2012.

With “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” however, proponents believe that tying a debt-ceiling increase to congressional passage of a BBA could reframe the debate to the GOP’s advantage by forcing Democrats to explain why they oppose not only the amendment itself, but merely the act of letting the states decide whether to ratify it.

Boehner says there are “a lot of options” being floated now that negotiations with the White House seem to have reached a breaking point. “Cut, Cap, and Balance” may have no chance of becoming law, but it will die as the “Republican option” — as yet another proposal offered by House Republicans to restore fiscal discipline in Washington. The Democrats cannot portray any of their proposals the same way. For his part, President Obama on Friday dismissed calls for a BBA, calling it a “typical Washington response,” adding, with no apparent irony: “We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do our jobs.”

“Next week, Republicans again will show that they can lead,” said House minority whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.). “We welcome every Democrat to join with us. But we will take the bill out of the House, and if you’ve ever questioned whether Republicans can do it on their own, they will.”

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.