In 1995, Mark Hatfield, a Republican senator from Oregon, cast the deciding vote against the Balanced Budget Amendment to the United States Constitution. Had the amendment passed, the federal government’s power to use deficit spending would have ended. Any program that relies on discretionary spending, from Social Security to Head Start, would have faced unpredictable cuts, which in turn would have caused untold suffering to the poor, the aged, and the young. The amendment - the “number-one priority” of the new Republican majority (the first since President Eisenhower’s administration) - was a hairsbreadth away from the required two-thirds vote in the Senate. Despite the call for party unity, Senator Hatfield would not vote yes and refused even to abstain.
“I cannot in good conscience,” Hatfield stated, “vote for the amendment [and] forever alter the way our Constitution is interpreted.” The only Republican to break with his party, Hatfield voted on principle, risking, as John F. Kennedy would put it, his own career for the national good.
The importance of the Balanced Budget Amendment to party politics highlights Hatfield’s courage. As the “centerpiece” of the Republican agenda in the 1990s - the Contract with America - the amendment responded to concerns that the federal government was spiraling out of control. Putting a brake on deficit spending, the amendment would have imposed debt limits on the federal government to halt discretionary expenditures. Although fiscal restraint may be a virtue, the amendment raised serious questions about democracy and economics. Robert Reischauer, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, warned that such an amendment “could lead to distortions of policies simply to meet budget goals” for it would compel legislators to cut funding for social programs just when the economy was weakest - the time of greatest need. Moreover, the amendment could trigger government default by increasing the cost of borrowing. But Republican leadership, calling the proposal “absolutely essential,” made amending the Constitution its major goal.
The Republicans controlled Congress, but held only 53 seats in the Senate, so every vote mattered. Senator Hatfield, however, opposed “enshrining fiscal policy in the Constitution.” Indeed, he dismissed the amendment as “a political ploy to erroneously make Americans think [the government was] actually doing something about the deficit.” He faced pressure to change his mind from all sides. Hatfield’s colleagues leaned on him and lobbyists pressured him. Senators Dole and Hatch, Hatfield’s longtime friends, urged party loyalty. The fact that Dole was a candidate for president heightened his request. In addition, Republican leadership dispatched Dr. Robert Schuler, the well-known television minister, to persuade Hatfield on grounds of faith. Even his son-in-law, counsel to Senator Hatch, lobbied him, presenting him with a photograph of his granddaughter with “For Her Sake!” written on it.
The amendment easily passed in the House of Representatives, 300-132, but its chances in the Senate were far from clear. Republican leadership, hopeful that Hatfield would fall in line, postponed the roll call to give him time to come on board. In the final hours, Hatfield received a dozen phone calls urging support. Senator Dole personally met with him. So strongly did the Senator oppose the amendment that he offered to resign rather than vote for it. Although 11 Democrats joined the 55 Republicans, the amendment’s passage fell short - Senator Hatfield voted no, with a final tally of 65-35 (in Senate tradition, the Senate majority leader changed his vote once the measure failed so it could be brought up for reconsideration).
In Profiles in Courage, President Kennedy observes: “In no other occupation but politics, is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige and his chosen career on a single issue.” Immediately, Republican colleagues called for Hatfield to resign as head of the Senate Appropriations Committee - a position of extraordinary importance. Senator Trent Lott called Hatfield “arrogant,” others dubbed him “a poor excuse for a Republican.” Sen. Alphonse D’Amato of New York urged the GOP to withhold campaign funds. But in the wake of his decision, Senator Hatfield showed grace under pressure, remaining respectfully silent against his critics even as a special caucus convened to discuss his fate. In the end, he retained his chairmanship, but the following year he chose not to run again.
In opposing the amendment, Hatfield displayed the special political courage that Kennedy described as a “conscientious insurgent.” Hatfield confronted not only “the pressures of party responsibility” but also pressures from his longtime political friends, his faith, and even his family. His stand against the Balanced Budget Amendment came at the end of a long political career in which he showed himself to be no stranger to controversy or principle. He opposed the war in Vietnam and urged amnesty for those who refused to fight. He called for a nuclear freeze. His vote against the amendment may seem less heroic for the issue of a budget cap appears technical and legalistic, but the amendment would have radically altered the way government does business - the federal government would not have had financial discretion to deal with tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina or the threat of avian flu. Moreover, as the rallying cry of the Republican Revolution, the amendment demanded party loyalty in terms that few elected officials could have resisted.
Hearing the news of the Senator’s retirement, Senator Dodd singled out Hatfield’s stand against the Balanced Budget Amendment as one of the Senator’s exemplary acts of principle: he was “the sole Republican to vote against the ... amendment, and he would have paid dearly for that stand had the concept of respect for one’s conscience not prevailed.” The concept of respect that did prevail owes much to Senator Hatfield’s political courage and the standard of decency he set for the nation.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.