WASHINGTON. — Washington -- What House Speaker Tom Foley recently said would have sent shivers down Washington's spine, if it had one. He predicted the end of civilization, as Washington has known it. He predicted Congress this year will pass a constitutional amendment to require the federal government to balance its budget.
The unlikely Robespierre of this revolution is Illinois' mild-mannered Sen. Paul Simon, who calls himself a ''pay-as-you-go'' Democrat. With the patience learned in nearly four decades in politics, he has been visiting colleagues one at a time, warning that the federal government's gross interest costs, which were just $74 billion in fiscal 1980, are projected to be $315 billion in fiscal 1993, when interest -- the rental of money -- will be the largest federal expenditure.
Discerning conservatives know that huge deficits make big government cheap for current consumers of its services, thereby reducing resistance to the growth of government. Sentient liberals recognize that huge deficits involve regressive transfer payments: We are transferring $315 billion from taxpayers to buyers of Treasury bills -- generally rich individuals and institutions -- in America and places like Tokyo and Riyadh.
These are among the reasons why in 1986 the Senate cast 66 votes -- just one short of the two-thirds needed -- for a balanced-budget amendment. And in 1990 the House fell just seven votes short. Today Congress is battered by scandal, by anti-incumbent fever and by the term-limits movement, and is bracing to be the villain in President Bush's campaign rhetoric. -- So a balanced-budget amendment is indeed likely to be sent to the states.
Will the necessary three-fourths of the states ratify it? Forty-nine of them -- all but Vermont -- operate under similar requirements. And a vote against the amendment looks like a vote for big government.
A balanced-budget amendment would serve Congress' institutional interests by requiring the president to propose a balanced budget, something neither Mr. Reagan nor Mr. Bush has come close to doing. Thus the amendment would end the tiresome presidential posturing -- ''only Congress can spend money'' -- that places on Congress exclusive blame for deficits. In fact, in states as well as in Washington, executive branches generally determine the level of spending, and legislatures merely modify -- and not very much -- spending patterns.
Some people predict that a balanced-budget amendment would used as an excuse for large tax increases. That is possible but, given today's taxaphobia, not likely.
Other people predict that an amendment would result in cuts in program X, or Y, or Z. Such predictions are implicit confessions that if Congress is forced to enforce priorities, then X, or Y, or Z will be deemed dispensable. When $400 billion deficits are permitted, marginal, even frivolous programs get funded because costs can be shoved onto future generations.
Anyway, it is wrong to make support for a constitutional change contingent on guesses about particular short-term policy consequences. A sufficient reason for a balanced-budget amendment is to impose, on both the legislative and executive branches, a regime of constitutionally compelled choices.
Senator Simon's amendment has a clause permitting escape from restraint by vote of a super-majority. Sixty percent of the full membership of both Houses could vote an imbalanced budget for, say, countercyclical purposes.
An unsolved and perhaps ultimately insoluble problem for any balanced-budget amendment is enforcement. What will be the penalties for non-compliance? An unenforceable amendment is less a law than an expression of intention. No one, least of all conservatives, can equably contemplate involving courts in enforcement of such an amendment, and evasion of it would deepen public cynicism.
But at certain points, and this is one, the governed must simply presuppose a sufficiency of honor among the governors. Furthermore, elevating fiscal responsibility to the rank of a constitutional duty will heighten public scrutiny of budgeting behavior and will intensify public indignation about any disregard of the duty.
I have hitherto (July 25, 1982) argued against a balanced-budget amendment on the ground that it is wrong to constitutionalize economic policy. Since then there have been 2.9 trillion reasons for reconsidering -- the $2.9 trillion added to the nation's debt.
My mistake was in considering deficits merely economic rather than political events. In fact, a balanced-budget amendment will do something of constitutional significance: It will protect important rights of an unrepresented group, the unborn generations that must bear the burden of the debts. The amendment blocks a form of confiscation of property -- taxation without representation.
The Constitution is fundamental law that should indeed deal only with fundamental questions. But as the third president said, ''The question whether one generation has the right to bind another by the deficit it imposes is a question of such consequence as to place it among the fundamental principles of government. We should consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves.''
Senator Simon's amendment is, in Jefferson's language, an emphatic withdrawal of an authorization government has wrongly assumed.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.