Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Three Democrats whose re-election chances grew longer as the result of a Republican redistricting plan voted Friday for a constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to run a balanced budget, a move that political experts say is meant to ingratiate the lawmakers with conservative voters.
Blue Dog Democratic Reps. Heath Shuler, of North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, and Mike McIntyre, of the 7th Congressional District, joined 235 Republicans in voting for House Joint Resolution 2, a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Blue Dog Coalition is a cohort of centrist Democrats in the House.
Rep. Larry Kissell, a Democrat from North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District, joined Shuler and McIntyre in voting for the proposal. Although not a Blue Dog, Kissell has broken ranks with his party on several key votes.
All three representatives face an uphill re-election battle in 2012 after a GOP-led General Assembly OK’d a new redistricting plan this summer. If the redrawn maps survive judicial scrutiny, Kissell, McIntyre, and Shuler will face districts with more Republican voters.
“Dare I say it’s an obvious political calculation?” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University, of the representatives’ votes in favor of H.J.R. 2. “They know their districts are going to be more conservative, have more Republicans, and whatever else they can do to endear themselves to at least some of those Republican voters, they need to try and do it to hold onto those seats.”
The proposed amendment would bar Congress from passing a federal budget in which spending exceeds revenue, unless the House and Senate approve the outlays by a three-fifths majority vote in each chamber. The amendment also would prevent lawmakers from raising the debt limit without meeting the same three-fifths threshold.
One loophole: When a declaration of war is in effect, Congress could waive the provisions of the amendment.
The proposal failed to gain enough support in the House, going down 261-165. It would have faced an even more difficult time in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The U.S. Constitution lays out a stringent approval process for amendments. A proposal must pass a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate before going to the states. At least 38 state legislatures must ratify the amendment before it becomes part of the Constitution.
Bolstered by Republican victories in the 1994 election, lawmakers in the House passed a balanced budget amendment in March 1995. The amendment came just shy of passing the Senate.
N.C. reps sound off
The federal government’s overall public debt surpassed $15 trillion this month. Supporters of the balanced budget amendment say the constitutional requirement is needed to restore fiscal sanity.
“It’s often said that our children and future generations will pay for the choices we make today, but the truth is, we’re incurring debt at such a rapid pace that we’ll begin to pay that price sooner than expected. We’ll pay now as well as later,” said McIntyre during a speech on the House floor.
Two of North Carolina’s stalwart Democrats — Reps. David Price of the 4th District and Brad Miller of the 13th District — blistered the amendment.
“It does absolutely nothing to create jobs or strengthen the economy, and it would put Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in real jeopardy,” Price said.
Miller called the proposal “a PR gimmick” that would tie lawmakers’ hands. “The Constitution gives Congress the power to do its job, and that’s what we need to do,” he said. “We should make the hard decisions it will take to rein in the budget deficit.”
Democrats weren’t the only ones to criticize the amendment. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, was one of four GOP’ers who voted no.
“I’m concerned that this version will lead to a much bigger government fueled by more taxes,” Ryan said. “Spending is the problem, yet this version of the Balanced Budget Amendment makes it more likely taxes will be raised, government will grow, and economic freedom will be diminished.”
Strategy for 2012
Greene, the political science professor, said that moderate Democrats hope to gain the support of moderate Republican voters in their district.
“The way incumbents win is by typically taking a quarter, or more, of the opposition party’s voters — trying to get those less-intense Republicans to say, ‘Well, Kissell is a Democrat, but he seems to have his heart in the right place on some of this stuff,’” Green said.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.