No BBA measure passed either body of Congress until 1982, when the Senate took 11 days to consider it and mustered the necessary two-thirds majority on the version crafted by Senator Strom Thurmond (R–SC). A companion measure received a vote of 236 to 187 in the House—short of the required two-thirds.
Despite opposition from Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D–MA), the floor vote was obtained by means of a discharge petition led by Representatives Barber Conable (R–NY) and Ed Jenkins (D–GA). Subsequently, continuing opposition from Speaker O’Neill and his successor, Jim Wright (D–TX), prompted creative use of discharge petitions to circumvent leadership opposition.
Because few elected officials would be willing to face constituents with a budget that violates the Constitution, opposing parties would be forced to compromise and pass legislation that would meet the constitutional requirement.
Opponents argue that the political pressure could lead to budget gimmicks that would meet the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.
On the occasion of the July 2011 vote on a new proposed BBA, former Representative from Oklahoma Ernest Istook presents lessons from history.
A proposed balanced budget amendment (BBA) to the Constitution is set to be considered by Congress this July—the first such vote since 1997.
Amending the Constitution is not easy, nor should it be.
The Balanced Budget Amendment is a popular campaign slogan, particularly for conservatives. The closest Congress came to actually taking the first steps toward adopting the amendment was in 1995.
Most amendment proposals go further than requiring a balanced budget or budget surpluses.
Some of the most frequent additional elements are: Supporters of a balanced budget amendment argue that respect for the Constitution will create strong political pressure to rein in deficits and impose needed accountability for irresponsible fiscal policy.
But despite that recent failure, the concept of a balanced budget amendment is one that regularly arises in the national conversation about debt and deficits and is sure to be considered again in the future.
Positions on whether the Constitution should be amended to require a balanced budget reflect opposing views about whether such an amendment would be an appropriate solution to the problem of persistent federal deficits and growing federal debt.