Balanced Budget Gambit

May 11, 1992

Congress is now so discredited and dispirited as an institution that, in desperation, it may send to the states for ratification an amendment to the Constitution supposedly mandating a balanced budget. And, mind you, President Bush would sign such legislation even though he has never sent up a balanced budget and probably never will. This cynical, hypocritical gesture would be the final insult to voters from a bunch of politicians who are in the process of approving a $400 billion deficit -- the largest in U.S. history.

Before the citizenry falls for Washington's latest scam, it should demand that this president and this Congress first enact measures that would come to grips with the budget crisis now. A balanced budget amendment would not do that. It would merely pass on the nation's fiscal burdens to future officeholders while permitting the current crop of incumbents to posture outrageously.

There is a way to begin a genuine move toward balancing the budget. It would require enactment of restraints on the runaway growth of such sacred-cow entitlement programs as Medicare, Medicaid, agriculture subsidies, veterans benefits, student loans and the like. But political Washington lacks the guts to pass such restraints. When Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., Warren Rudman, R-N.H., Charles Robb, D-Va., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., proposed in mid-April that entitlement spending be limited to the inflation rate plus the growth in population, they were batted down on a 66-28 vote pandering to the veterans lobby. Maryland's Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, predictably joined the majority.

If this newspaper thought a balanced budget amendment would fulfill its promise, we would back it to the hilt. Reform after reform has failed. During the borrow-and-spend Reagan-Bush era, Congress first experimented with Gramm-Rudman deficit limits and then tried to put a cap on so-called discretionary spending xTC in the 1990 budget agreement. These were acts of futility because nothing was done to control entitlement programs now costing more than half a trillion dollars a year -- and rising.

Given this sad history, a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget is increasingly tempting. Since the present system is bankrupt, since the nation's security and economic well-being are at risk, since huge borrowings increasingly divert the nation's resources to the wealthy, at home and abroad, drastic action is needed.

But before the public accepts such a step, with its inherent rigidities and opportunities for legerdemain and loopholes, it should insist that Congress begin now to phase-in a balanced budget five years down the road. The acid test should be whether Congress will put the brakes on entitlements instead of piling on debts that will have to be paid by our children and grandchildren. If Congress balks, then voters will know that the balanced budget amendment is just an election-year ploy.

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