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Statement of Senator Michael B. Enzi

On the Balanced Budget Amendment

December 13, 2011


Mr. President.  I rise today to discuss an issue that I raised during my maiden speech on the Senate floor in 1997 – the need to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.   I’m disappointed that we were unable to pass a balanced budget amendment in 1997.  In 1997, our national debt was $5.4 trillion.  Today, it is an astonishing $15 trillion, and without immediate action, that number will continue to increase to a level that is even more unsustainable.

Time and time again, the federal government has proven that is incapable of the fiscal discipline needed to spend within its means.  Time and time again, the federal government has spent more money than we bring in.  It has led to the situation we currently face – where we are borrowing more than 40 cents on every dollar we spend and where we are being threatened with further downgrades in our credit rating. 

In fiscal year 2010, the government brought in slightly more than $2.2 trillion in revenue.  At the same time we collected $2.2 trillion, we spent $3.5 trillion.  In other words, we overspent by $1.3 trillion.  That’s an astonishing amount of spending, and it cannot be sustained.

We have a spending addiction that must be controlled.  For years, we have tried for years to hide it, disguise it, and ignore it.  We have acted like it is okay to keep spending money that we don’t have.  We no longer have that option.  The world today is different than the world in 1997.  We’ve seen riots in other nations whose fiscal situations were out of control.  If we don’t act now, we could see similar events in our country.  We can either balance our budget or go broke – even more broke than we already are.

Balancing the budget is not a revolutionary idea.  Responsible families balance the amount they spend with the amount they make or they go bankrupt.  Businesses balance the amount they spend with the amount they bring in – or they bankrupt.  Most states have amendments requiring them to balance the amount they spend with their revenue.  Wyoming’s constitution requires a balanced budget each year.  If people in Washington understood budgeting like Wyoming does, we would be in a much better place right now.  If families, businesses, and states can balance their budgets, there is no reason that the federal government cannot balance its budget. 

There are two options the Senate is considering today, and I’m pleased that there is consensus from both sides of the aisle that a balanced budget amendment would help us.  Although that is the case, there is no doubt in my mind that the version introduced by Senator Hatch is by far the superior option to the version introduced by Senator Udall.

The Republican Balanced Budget Amendment gets at the heart of the problem, which is the need to rein in out of control spending.  The Republican bill requires that we get spending down to historical revenue levels, and will force us to make the tough choices about what programs are no longer necessary. 

It also prohibits Congress from raising taxes unless a supermajority of members support such a tax increase.  This is an important provision because the default solution for out of control spending should be cutting spending, not raising taxes.  It also goes into effect 5 years after ratification, which gives us the ability to transition to a balanced budget.

While I am pleased that my Democratic colleagues have a balanced budget amendment, the alternative they have offered does not address the heart of the problem.  It does not include a spending cap to ensure that we move spending to an acceptable level.  It does not include a requirement for a supermajority to raise taxes, which will allow proponents of tax increases to more easily work to balance the budget on the backs of the American people.  The American people are not the ones who cannot get spending under control.  They should not see tax increases simply because Congress cannot do its job.   

We need to pass the Hatch amendment – and we need to pass it now because I also must remind my colleagues that passage of a strong balanced budget amendment is a first step.  If we pass a balanced budget amendment, it still must be ratified by the states. Three-fourths of the states have to pass it for it to become a part of the Constitution.  That will take time – and with a $15 trillion debt, we don’t have a lot of time left. 

Passage of the Balanced Budget Amendment by three-fourths of the states is a tough test.  Because of the magnitude of what we are trying to do, it should be.  However, we need to give the states this opportunity to force the federal government to come to grips with its finances just as the state governments are required to do. 

Why should we give the states the opportunity to ratify a balanced budget amendment?  Because I have found that the best decisions are made closest to the people.  State governments are closer to the people than the federal government, and they are generally better at addressing the needs of the people of their state.  Giving the states the opportunity to ratify the Amendment would bring the budget closer to the people and would allow the American people to decide how they want Washington to spend their hard earned money.   

Amending our Constitution is an extraordinary measure.  It is not something that I take lightly.  We’re in an extraordinary time.  We have a budget deficit that is out of control and a national debt that is ballooning to levels that are unsustainable.  We need a balanced budget amendment so that we can begin to get our nation’s finances back in order.  The bill that Senator Hatch has offered will do just that.  I urge my colleagues to support it.