Congress got it right.

By a vote of 261-165 on Friday afternoon, the House of Representatives fell 23 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for passage of a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have required the federal government to balance its budget.

It was a bad idea and, as the vote demonstrated, enough of the House members knew it was a bad idea to derail the plan.

Even Paul Ryan, tea party hero and Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, voted no. Ryan has led the charge for balanced budgets and debt reduction in the current Congress but feared the proposed constitutional amendment would lead to tax increases and bigger government.

Ryan was one of just four Republicans who voted against the proposal, sad to say, but his opposition was a powerful example of common sense and political courage.

The vote was an exercise in political showmanship, conjured up by members of Congress who like to talk about balancing the budget but don’t have the gumption to actually do it.

And talk they did, much of the day on Thursday and again on Friday. Armed with charts and graphs and folksy homilies, righteously indignant House members did their best to pass the buck — or trillions of bucks, to be a bit more precise.

We’d heard it all before, of course. Every once in a while, the budget-busting politicians in Washington try to cover their tracks by proposing some version of this law that would force them to do the job they should have been doing all along: Controlling the government’s spending to conform with the government’s revenue.

Balancing the budget is not that complicated, folks. And it doesn’t require us to amend the U.S. Constitution.

This particular proposal, opponents argued, would have resulted in massive cuts in funding for essential programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Critics also argued, as they have in the past, that the government must have the flexibility to resort to deficit spending during economic downturns, when budget cuts or tax increases mandated by a balanced budget amendment could cause or worsen a recession.

Nobody likes the national debt, which has surpassed $15 trillion and is growing by the minute, or the annual budget deficits that fuel it. But the current obsession with debt reduction at the expense of every other government responsibility is a recipe for disaster.

A balanced budget requirement would almost certainly exacerbate the misery of countless Americans who look to the federal government for assistance in times of need.

And there is the small matter of national defense; mandatory cuts in military spending required by a balanced budget amendment could leave our country unable to defend itself against aggression by our enemies.

The alternative to such debilitating spending reductions would be economy-crushing tax increases that would destroy jobs and, ultimately, lead to more debt by depressing economic growth and the federal revenue that comes with it.

A balanced budget amendment, in any form, is a clear-cut example of a cure that is worse than the disease.

The latest revival of the idea was the result of last summer’s debt-ceiling deal that called for a supercommittee to devise a plan for deficit reduction and, as salve for reluctant deficit hawks in the House, also guaranteed a vote on a balanced budget amendment.

To become the law of the land, the amendment needed to win a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate and then would have required approval by 38 state legislatures.

Even if the amendment has passed in the House, it was likely to be rejected by the Senate.

The truth is, these politicians who are constantly screaming to balance the budget can balance it if they want to. It would require common sense, which is in short supply in Washington. And it would require political courage, which is even rarer.

The sad truth — and dirty little secret — about this and every previous balanced budget debate is that the folks in Washington didn’t expect it to become law, and even some of its most vocal advocates didn’t want it to pass.

If they actually balanced the budget, after all, they couldn’t use budget deficits as a campaign issue when they run for re-election. And they couldn’t brag about balancing the budget because they’d have to share the credit with those on the other side of the aisle who helped to get it done.

Unfortunately, this is the same attitude that Congress brings to all the difficult problems facing our country. It’s the reason we have gridlock. It’s the reason nothing gets done in Washington. For the politicians, there is simply nothing to gain when they solve a problem.

And, apparently, nothing to lose when they don’t.


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