Joe Biden is the only 2020 Democrat to have supported the Balanced Budget Amendment. In a floor speech from January 1995, a younger Biden chided liberals in his own party over their reluctance to cut federal spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans’ benefits. Watch that video here:
Today, Biden is a presumed front-runner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, outpolling his opponents by wide margins among voters over the age of 50—a fact often credited to his association with popular former president Barack Obama. He leads the pack in terms of superdelegate endorsements as well.
But some election watchers have speculated that the former vice president’s 36-year record as a conservative senator could disqualify him in the eyes of voters from the party’s growing left wing, and even harm his chances in a general election—similar to how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was dogged by her past. Much has been made, for example, of Biden’s ill-conceived crusade against school integration busing in the ‘70s, his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony, the ‘94 crime bill, which he wrote, and his closeness with the financial services industry.
But in the flurry of headlines, Biden’s support and vote for the 1995 Balanced Budget Amendment has gone largely unnoticed, despite the fact that it put him squarely at odds with the majority of his Democratic colleagues at the time. The Delaware senator was one of just 14 Democrats to back the measure when it reached the Senate.
H.J. Res. 1, the official designation for the Balanced Budget Amendment, was the central part of the GOP’s “contract With America” promise to eliminate the deficit. If adopted, it would have capped federal spending at what government brought in in revenue, providing an easy tool for those looking to cut federal programs.
As Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, told Paste, “balanced budget amendments are about stopping democratic institutions from printing money when we need more money. It’s a catastrophic idea and would cause depressions and worsen them. It is also a good excuse to slash safety net spending.”
Bernie Sanders, another 2020 Democratic front-runner who was then a member of the House of Representatives, spoke out against the measure on these grounds, noting that along with the Balanced Budget Amendment, the GOP was simultaneously requesting a large increase in defense spending. Sanders pointed out that the amendment was a thinly-veiled effort to cut social programs, expressing that the economy was not as strong as was being reported and that the amendment would cripple efforts to “rebuild the physical and human infrastructure.”
“It will mean, in my view, the destruction of the social security system as we know it,” Sanders warned. “It will mean savage cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, in the opportunity of young people to get grants and loans to go to college; it will mean major cutbacks in nutrition programs for hungry children, it will tamper with the unemployment compensation program, as we heard earlier; it will be a disaster for the vast majority of the people in this country.”
Biden, on the other hand, dismissed the concerns, arguing that there was no way of predicting the impacts of the amendment and claiming both sides were blowing the amendment out of proportion.
“We’ll hear a good deal of hyperbole on this amendment,” he explained. “Promises by those [who say] this is a cure-all; promises by those [who say] if it passes we’re going to go to hell in a handbasket and rapidly and all our liberties will be taken from us.”
To Biden, the amendment, while certainly not perfect, was still desirable to no amendment at all, given how much the U.S. was projected to spend on interest payments on the national debt. He noted how Democratic efforts to decouple Social Security from the budget had failed to make it into the legislation and he criticized the final language of the amendment for allowing workarounds to the balancing requirement, even rhetorically asking with staccato emphasis what had happened “to that old conservative discipline of paying for what you spend?”
By 1995, Biden had a record as a deficit hawk going back over a decade. In 1984, the Delaware senator had pushed a plan to freeze federal spending, much to the horror of liberals in his party—horror which he seemed to revel in all those years later.
Recounting how he’d bucked liberal orthodoxy seemed to please Biden immensely in his floor speech defending the proposed amendment. It was something he brought up repeatedly, in between echoing Republican talking points, as a way of chiding liberal Democrats for fiscal irresponsibility.
“When I introduced the budget freeze years ago, the liberals in my party said ‘it’s an awful thing you’re doing, Joe,’” he said, referring to his 1984 plan. “‘All the programs we care about, you’re freezing them—money for the blind, the disabled, education, and so on.’ And my argument then is the one I make now, which is the strongest, most compelling reason to be for this amendment or an amendment. And that is that ‘if we don’t do that, all the things I care about are going to be gone.’”
Later on, he boasted that when he’d argued for that budget freeze, he’d included programs Democrats hold dear.
“I meant Social Security as well,” he said. “I meant Medicare and Medicaid; I meant veterans’ benefits; I meant every single, solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time and I tried it a fourth time. Somebody has to tell me in here, how we’re going to do this hard work without dealing with any of those sacred cows.”
The Balanced Budget Amendment narrowly failed in the Senate, losing by just one vote. The economic theory that high deficits and debt would destroy the U.S. economy by spurring runaway inflation fell out of vogue as the country took on more and more debt without, as the New York Times put it, the sky falling.
Even so, over the years, Biden has maintained that cutting social programs is the only way to ensure their continued existence. As vice president, he led the negotiations for the 2011 “grand bargain” that put Social Security on the table. Just last March, Biden called for means-tested cuts to Social Security and Medicare while criticizing the GOP tax cuts for not benefiting lower-income Americans. “Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code,” Biden said. “What’s the first thing he decided we needed to go after? Social Security and Medicare.”
The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.