Hoary Old Hoax

February 16, 1994

This being an election year, an unholy alliance of liberal big-spenders and conservative anti-taxers has coalesced again behind that hoary old hoax -- the Balanced Budget Amendment. Of course, each side of this phalanx proposes a course of action the other side despises. But you take your votes where you find them when messing with the Constitution.

The proposed amendment is a phony. It presents to legislators a chance to propose procedures for cutting the deficit while offering them ample opportunity to slip-slide away when it comes to actually raising taxes and/or cutting spending.

Readers of this column know it is a nesting place for deficit hawks. We have applauded the ceilings on discretionary spending built into the 1990 and 1993 budget bills as surely as we have deplored the absence of controls on entitlement spending for Medicare, Medicaid and -- yes -- Social Security. We favor the line-item veto. But we oppose this pretense at budget balancing.

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., a lawmaker not noted for fiscal frugality, is sponsor of the BBA. His amendment states that "total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year" after 1999. So simple, except for these flaws:

* A federal budget is but a blueprint of what the government expects in the way of income and outlays in the year ahead. The executive and legislative branches regularly overestimate income and undershoot on outlays. Room for legerdemain is legendary. The amendment would require a three-fifths vote to authorize deficit financing in emergency, thus giving a two-fifth minority-plus-one highly undemocratic veto power.

* The Constitution confers on Congress the responsibility for raising taxes and approving expenditures. Yet some BBA advocates would want to require the president to offer a balanced budget, a nice way of passing the buck. And because legal challenges would surely be raised, the power to decide if certain taxes or outlays pass muster could pass, wrongly, to the courts.

* Literal interpretation of the BBA could lead to Draconian, economy-wrecking meat-ax cuts that would quickly have to be rescinded. In the process, deficit discipline would get a bad name it does not deserve. And Congress would thus be under less pressure to do what needs to be done.

It is somewhat ironic that the latest effort to pass this unsavory amendment comes just after the release of a Clinton budget that shows some progress in holding down the size of deficit. More, much more, needs to be done especially in the entitlement area. But one would think this is not the moment to change the Constitution.

Fortunately, President Clinton is opposing the amendment with the support of budget director Leon Panetta, a doughty deficit fighter during his days in Congress, and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The BBA deserves burial even if interment will last only till the next election year.

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