Looking back in 1981, Biden said he had been persuaded to evolve by his fellow lawmakers.
“I have been made a believer over the last nine years in the Senate,” he said. The teachings of economists, he continued, had made him reluctant to listen to his Republican colleagues about the dangers of deficit spending, particularly when he was just an impressionable 29-year-old “not too long out of college.” But eventually, he was worn down. “As I listened over the years in this body, I became more and more a believer in balanced budgets,” he said.
Following what he termed an “olive branch” from Reagan — a spending freeze that also raised taxes — he linked arms with two Republican colleagues on the Senate Budget Committee to introduce his own freeze proposal in 1984. Acknowledging it would be labeled “draconian” (“I don’t know how to do anything else than bring it to a screeching, screeching halt,” he said), Biden’s plan cut $239 billion from the deficit over three years, almost $100 billion more than even Reagan’s proposal, and proposed doing it partly by eliminating scheduled increases for Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries. It would, he said, “shock the living devil out of everyone in the US Senate.”
Biden indulged in doomsday predictions to sell the measure, warning that letting deficits go untamed would “allow the economy to come crashing down” and lead to “an economic and political crisis of extraordinary proportions” within twelve to eighteen months. As bemused commentators would note decades later, it was all straight from the playbook of Tea Party darling Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-worshiping congressman from Wisconsin who was bent on taking a meat cleaver to Medicare and Social Security. When Biden ran directly against Ryan for vice president in 2012, he warned voters Ryan was a threat to their hard-earned entitlements.
Though the freeze failed, it was only the beginning. Biden’s ongoing distaste for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution didn’t stop him from introducing a similar amendment in 1984, this one tying spending to the growth of gross national product and inflation, which he referred to as a “pay-as-you-go” measure. Calling it a “much more realistic approach,” he proudly boasted that he had “literally plagiarized” it from Pete du Pont, a Republican. Later that year, Biden backed the line-item veto — an anti-spending measure cherished by Reagan and the conservative movement — and another budget measure, this one successful, requiring Congress to vote on freezing the budget for one year before it could raise the debt ceiling. His campaign then ran radio ads claiming that “cutting the deficit is more important than party differences.”
Biden’s antipathy to government spending and deficits found its most radical expression in the form of the balanced budget constitutional amendment, which he had viewed as laughable and dangerous in previous decades. But with the advent of the 1990s, he now warmed up to it.
Its opponents viewed it with alarm: making a balanced federal budget a constitutional requirement would not only hamstring the government during times of emergency but require — even during economic downturns, when most economists advised more government spending and when spending cuts had historically plunged countries into even greater misery — the government to sharply raise taxes or, more likely, make drastic cuts to core, often life-saving programs.
To the relief of progressives and hundreds of economists, the amendment never passed under Clinton. But with the help of a wavering Biden, it came perilously close.
With the backing of Biden, its chairman, the Judiciary Committee started the decade by endorsing the amendment two years in a row. A 1991 report he issued warned that “the spree of deficit spending by our federal government must be curbed.” All the while, Biden acknowledged it would be a disaster. “This is a lousy amendment,” he said in 1991. “It’s not a good idea — except I can’t think of any other idea except maintaining the status quo. And the status quo stinks.” He was, he explained, “prepared to take what I consider radical medicine” to tackle deficits.
Were the constitutional amendment process less onerous, the measure may well have passed several times in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Biden stayed undecided until the eleventh hour, when he and several other Democrats, including future presidential nominee John Kerry and future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, came out against the amendment, causing it to fall four votes short of the sixty-seven needed to pass. Biden instead voted for a doomed alternative offered by Reid that insulated Social Security and construction projects from any painful cuts.
That sweetener was gone from the version that made it to the Senate floor the start of the following year, under a very different Congress and in a distinctly new political landscape. In between, the United States had experienced something of a political revolution, as a cadre of right-wing radicals, fed up with what they saw as the GOP’s timidity and feebleness, took over the House, putting both chambers of Congress in the party’s hands for the first time in forty years. In many ways, this was a more significant victory for the conservative movement than Reagan’s had been in 1980. After all, it was Congress that shaped and passed legislation, and Reagan’s vision had been largely stifled by Democratic control of the House throughout his presidency.
The George Washington of this victory was Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, who fancied himself “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times” and called for “large-scale, radical change.” It was his “Contract with America,” a ten-point legislative plan that aimed to finish what Reagan had started, that victorious Republicans had signed and campaigned on. A balanced budget amendment was one of its key planks.
With the political calculus now altered, the Clinton administration toned down its opposition to the amendment. Even as Alice Rivlin, director of the Office of Management and Budget, warned that it would “exaggerate the boom-bust cycle,” engineer “worse recessions,” and make for “bad economic policy and bad constitutional policy,” the White House made clear that it had lost the appetite to fight. Gingrich left a meeting with Clinton with the impression that he was “not going to engage in an aggressive campaign against” the measure.
Gingrich’s confidence was likely rooted in the fact that many Democrats had become devoted converts. The 1995 version of the amendment, which required the prohibitively high threshold of three-fifths of both chambers of Congress to either raise the debt limit or pass a non–balanced budget, was sponsored and championed by Illinois’s Paul Simon, one of the Senate’s stalwart liberals, and backed by prominent Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and, of course, Biden.
“Something is going to come bouncing out of here and sent to the states [to be ratified],” Biden said. The amendment had “real flaws,” he repeated, but vowed to back it because “we need something.” After several Democratic attempts to make it more forgiving failed, Biden and the rest of the committee, on a 15–3 vote, once more sent the amendment to the Senate.
“Some of us tried to make this a better proposal,” he said as he prepared to vote for it. But he was “faced with a choice of an imperfect amendment or continued spending,” and he had “sufficient confidence in our citizens and in our political institutions that we will confront any challenges” from its many flaws.
What those flaws and imperfections would mean in practice was stark. To make the spending cuts a balanced budget demanded, countless programs that Americans relied on would have to be cut or eliminated: low-income housing, heating assistance, federally funded school lunches, mass transit, even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funded hundreds of TV and radio stations around the country, not to mention the big three entitlements: Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. It would “be a disaster for working people, for elderly people, for low-income people,” Bernie Sanders had warned.
In the end, a sufficient number of Democrats were spooked by the threat posed to Social Security and other programs to defeat the amendment, including Daschle and even California’s conservative senator Dianne Feinstein, both of whom had been on board with the idea in 1994. But the decisions of Biden and two other Democrats to switch their votes in favor of the amendment brought it a mere two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
The 1996 reelection contest meant Biden doubled down on his support. Once more, Biden faced an opponent who sought to paint him as an overly liberal flip-flopper. But businessman Ray Clatworthy was not only considered too far right by the Republican he had beaten in the primary; he was the first rival in Biden’s career who could match him in fundraising. Despite political experts stressing his seat was one of the country’s safest — borne out by his eventual 22-point margin of victory — Biden, per usual, moved right. While fighting for reelection, he became one of just twelve Democrats to side with a near-unanimous GOP to again bring the balanced budget amendment within two votes of passage.
Yet even after winning six more years, Biden stayed the course. This time, with Clinton’s second term in the bag, the measure faced stronger Democratic opposition. As the ground was readied for yet another vote in 1997, the White House lobbied key Democrats to reject the balanced budget amendment, and Clinton trashed it in his State of the Union speech, calling it “unnecessary and unwise” and warning that it could “cripple our country in time of economic crisis.” Biden, for his part, played unconvincingly coy. His spokesman told the press Biden would use his vote as leverage to make improvements to the measure, such as exempting Social Security — but then quickly added that Biden would vote for it no matter what, undermining any leverage he might have had.
Whatever economic motivation Biden may have had to support the amendment was undercut when more than one thousand economists, including eleven Nobel Prize winners, signed a letter pleading with Congress not to adopt it. One economist, Nobel laureate James Tobin, cautioned it would “put the federal government into a fiscal straitjacket” during economic crises; another compared its insistence on keeping spending strictly below revenue to “telling the Atlantic Ocean not to cross a line in the sand.”
Despite dithering in the days leading up to the vote, Biden voted for the third straight year to approve the amendment that even he — along with just about everyone outside of antigovernment, right-wing circles, including his local newspaper — had warned would bring economic catastrophe. He joined all fifty-five of the Senate’s Republicans and just ten other Democrats. The amendment failed by just one vote. Against Biden’s best efforts, disaster had been averted.