No one cares about the Balanced Budget Amendment

The Senate today voted on two different versions of a Balanced Budget Amendment. Neither came close to the 2/3 needed to pass it and send it to the states for ratification; it seems that at least for now, there’s not much threat of tarnishing the Constitution of the United States of America with this junk. Note that the House already failed to pass their version earlier this year, and today neither version could even achieve a simple majority, with Democrats voting unanimously against a Republican version while a Democratic version only scraped up 21 votes.

Steve has often talked about what a substantively bad idea the BBA is, so I’ll just comment for now on the politics of it. The reason that the Senate was voting today on something which had no chance of passing and which had already failed in the House was that, as you may recall, Republicans had demanded this vote as part of their price for raising the debt limit over the summer. What was evident then, and is even more obvious now, is what a silly demand that was. Virtually no one noticed when the House voted down the BBA, and odds are that even fewer will notice today’s votes. Granted, it’s fodder for GOP attack ads in the next election cycle, but I’m finding it hard to believe that “voted against a Balance Budget Amendment” is going to swing any votes. Especially since the handful of swing voters who really are apt to be influenced by that sort of thing (there must be a few, right?) could presumably simply be told about the size of the deficit, and that would do the trick.

More generally, there’s a lesson for everyone from this. Most single votes by Members of Congress just don’t matter very much to re-election. Oh, if it’s sufficiently high-profile and substantive, it might make a difference on the margins; there’s evidence that voting for ACA hurt Democrats in 2010 compared to voting against it, and the same was true about a couple of high-profile votes preceding the 1994 Republican landslide (although studies establishing that effect cannot tell what would have happened had the measure never made it to a Congressional vote; it’s possible that attack ads would have simply substituted some other vote and achieved the same outcome). But in most cases, unless a policy narrowly affects them directly, most people don’t pay any attention at all to what Congress is up to. No one is going to lose his or her seat in the House over a cheap symbolic vote. Democrats were smart to oppose the BBA even if it polls well because no one really cares about such things, and if Republicans really did give up anything substantive in the debt limit negotiations, then they were quite foolish.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.