WASHINGTON -- A constitutional amendment that would force the federal government to spend within its means would be impractical and irresponsible or painful and necessary -- depending on which member of Congress you believe.
Lawmakers wielded charts and statistics yesterday -- even spoke of their children's economic future -- during competing arguments about the wisdom of a balanced budget amendment.
Congress is expected to vote next month on such an amendment, in the face of a $400 billion deficit, with Democratic leaders predicting it will be approved and then sent to the states for ratification. A two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and support of three-quarters of the state legislatures is necessary for the proposal to become part of the U.S. Constitution.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, called the proposal "economically impractical and constitutionally irresponsible" during a hearing before the House Budget Committee.
Mr. Sarbanes, who heads the Joint Economic Committee, said such a measure would not distinguish between day-to-day spending and investments needed to make the United States competitive. All investments would have to be fully funded with tax revenues every fiscal year, he said.
"If American households were to follow such a strategy, only a tiny minority of American families would own houses, cars or major appliances," he said.
The amendment would be "most perverse" during a recession, he noted, when the amount of federal tax revenue would fall. "It would require the deepest spending cuts or tax increases in recessions, when revenues fall short of expenditures," he said.
Although proponents say the amendment could be suspended during times of war or a three-fifths vote in the House, Mr. Sarbanes found it difficult to justify. "No other constitutional principle -- free speech, individual rights or equal protection -- can be waived by a three-fifths vote," he said.
But others argued that only by force of a constitutional amendment could a spendthrift federal government effectively reduce the growingbudget deficit.
"It forces us to make the painful choices that neither political party is willing to make right now," said Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat and author of one proposed budget amendment. By October, interest payments on the national debt will become the top budget item-- $315 billion annually in "wasted spending," he said.
"Our children and our children's children . . . will bear the burden of our fiscal failures," said Rep. Dick Swett, a New Hampshire Democrat, who said having six children underscored his support for the amendment. The proposal is our "last best hope for getting our budget deficits under control."
House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, a California Democrat and a skeptic on the balanced budget measure, chided amendment supporters. Few of them have said that the measure would require deep budget cuts and taxes to put it into effect, he said.
"Tell me what the hard choices are going to be?" Mr. Panetta asked the Illinois senator. "We can't play games."
Spending cuts and taxes would be necessary to eliminate the deficit, Mr. Simon replied. "I don't know how that mix is going to take place," he said, later telling reporters that the "primary area" of cuts would be military spending. Pressed for other areas, he declined, saying that "they are so insignificant compared to that."
Mr. Panetta doubted that such an amendment could replace or provide the political will to eliminate the deficit. He noted that President Bush, in a meeting with congressional leaders, backed urban assistance.
The president declined to put a price tag on the aid but declared that it would not prompt a tax increase, Mr. Panetta said.