Claiborne Pell Was a Fiscal Extremist, According to Today’s Democrats — He Supported a Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment
In September, Rhode Island State Democratic Chairman Edwin Pacheco staked his party to an aggressive stand against adding a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution, characterizing such an amendment in an official press release as “extreme economic policy”. But support for Federal spending-with-no-ending has not always been the singularly dominant position amongst Rhode Island’s Democratic leaders that it is today. At a previous time when the Federal budget deficit had grown to unprecedented levels, at least one prominent RI Democrat gave his unambiguous support to a balanced budget constitutional amendment, in a year when it had a realistic chance of passage. That Democratic leader was United States Senator Claiborne Pell.
In 1982, Senator Pell voted against a balanced-budget amendment that passed the Senate by a vote of 69-31. (The amendment later failed to pass in the House).
By 1986, Senator Pell had changed his position and voted in favor of sending a balanced-budget amendment to the states for ratification. The amendment lost by a single vote, 66-34 (2/3 required for passage). The amendment that Senator Pell voted for — and that the present chairman of the RI Democratic Party would presumably find “extreme” — read…
SECTION 1. Total outlays of the United States for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts to the United States for that year, unless three-fifths of the whole number of both houses of Congress shall provide for a specific excess of outlays over receipts. The public debt of the United States shall not be increased to fund any excess of outlays over receipts for any fiscal year, unless three-fifths of the whole number of both houses of Congress shall provide, by law, for such an increase.In 1992, Senator Pell reiterated his support for adding a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution, voting in favor of a non-binding sense-of-the-Senate resolution calling for its passage.
SECTION 2. Any bill to increase revenue shall become law only if approved by a majority of the whole number of both Houses of Congress by rollcall vote.
SECTION 3. Prior to each fiscal year, the President shall transmit to the Congress a proposed budget for the United States Government for that fiscal year in which total outlays are not greater than total receipts. The President may also recommend an alternative budget in which total outlays exceed total receipts, which shall be accompanied by a detailed explanation of the need for such excess.
SECTION 4. The Congress may waive the provisions of this article for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war is in effect.
SECTION 5. The Congress shall enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
SECTION 6. This article shall take effect for the fiscal year 1991 or for the second fiscal year beginning after its ratification, whichever is later.
By 1994, Senator Pell had changed positions once again and voted against two separate versions of a balanced budget amendment offered that year. During the floor debate in 1994, the Senator explained how his thinking had evolved over the preceding decade. Here is an excerpt, from the C-SPAN archives…
The intensity of the debate on the balanced budget amendment–and to a degree my own reaction to it–varies in proportion to the magnitude of deficits in the Federal budget over the last 12 years…Today, annual deficits run-up by the Federal government are much larger than the figure of $221 billion cited by Senator Pell in his explanation of his vote in favor of the 1986 balanced budget amendment. 2011 will be the third year in a row where the Federal deficit exceeds $1 trillion dollars, with no return to 1986 levels anticipated (in inflation adjusted dollars) in the next five years projected by the Office of Management and Budget.
[In 1986] we were 2 years into the second Reagan administration and deep into a period of institutional deadlock between an executive branch that would not agree to fund programs and a legislative branch that often was not disposed to cut them. The deficit that year had risen to $221 billion.
The Senate that year narrowly failed to approve a balanced budget amendment, notwithstanding the fact that many of us–myself included again–this time felt that the institutional deadlock was approaching such drastic proportions that a constitutional solution might be the only way out of our dilemma…
Then, in 1992, things began to change for the better….As a percentage of gross domestic product, the fiscal year 1995 deficit is projected at 2.5 percent, down from 3.5 percent for fiscal year 1994. And it is expected to stabilize at 2.3 percent for fiscal year 1996-99. This is a significant figure because it shows that the deficit is very small relative to overall economic activity and the economy thus has substantial capacity to absorb the effects of deficit spending, albeit at levels which for other reasons certainly must be reduced.
In 1994, Senator Pell believed that the projected lowering of annual deficits to 2.3% of GDP made a balanced budget amendment unnecessary. Today, deficits are much larger than 2.3% of GDP and are larger as a percentage of GDP than they were when Senator Pell voted to send a balanced budget amendment to the states. 1986 had been the 3rd year out of 4 that the Federal deficit exceeded 5% of GDP (and in the 4th of those years, it was 4.8%). 2012 will be the fourth consecutive year that the deficit exceeds 7% of GDP (though OMB does project that it will be down to 3.3% of GDP by 2016 — if you believe that the economy is going to grow by 23% while the percentage of revenue collected in Federal taxes jumps from 15% to 19% between 2010 and 2016).
Senator Pell thought that “institutional deadlock” was a problem in government during part of his tenure in office. This, at least, is something in common with current Rhode Island Democrats. In August, Rhode Island First District Congressman David Cicilline sent out a fundraising letter explaining his vote to raise the Federal debt ceiling as a response to “partisan gridlock”. The difference, of course, is that Senator Pell believed that institutional deadlock made it necessary to strengthen constraints on Federal spending, while Congressman Cicilline believes that partisan gridlock justifies autopilot spending increases and unrestrained Federal borrowing — and contemporary Democratic leaders like Edwin Pacheco believe that the kind of serious consideration Claiborne Pell gave to balancing the Federal budget is “extreme”.