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Balanced-budget amendment would do what?

Copies of the proposed federal budget of FY 2012 are seen at the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC.

Kai Ryssdal: We were talking with David Gura yesterday from our Washington bureau about some of the procedural things that're going to have to happen before there's a substantive vote on a deficit plan in the House. That chamber started debate on one of those things today, a bill called Cut, Cap and Balance. Cut the deficit, cap spending and put a balanced budget amendment in the Constitution.

You've got to do it. Most states do. Should the Feds? Here's David.


David Gura: Here's a bit of what we heard on Capitol Hill today:

Jeb Hensarling: Everyone has to balance their budget except for the federal government?

Well, 49 states do. But should the U.S. government take a cue from them?

Norm Ornstein: It's not easy at all for states to balance their budgets, and when times are bad in the country, it can cause enormous problems.

That's Norm Ornstein. He's a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. When things get tough, states go to the federal government for back-up.

Ron Snell is a fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ron Snell: One of the reasons that states are able to maintain balanced budgets is that, in the worst of a crisis like the one we've been through, there's federal money to help them out.

The cuts Congress is considering could wreak havoc in some states. They count on the federal government to help with unemployment benefits and Medicaid. Richard Briffault teaches at Columbia Law School. He says some states game the system.

Richard Briffault: Many states, even when they do have balanced budget requirements, meet their balanced budget requirements by all sorts of financial tricks.

They'll sell off assets and put off payments. But Ron Snell says the U.S. government couldn't do that.

Snell: The federal government has a responsibility that states don't have. States don't have to worry about the national economy.

Norm Ornstein says Congress has voted on balanced-budget amendments before.

Ornstein: It's so seductive. And it's seductive to vote for, because you're wrapping yourself in the dual cloak of the Constitution of the United States and fiscal rectitude.

And in the end, you're voting for something that could spell trouble in the future -- long after you're out of office.

In Washington, I'm David Gura for Marketplace.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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