Opposing sides rally over budget amendment



WASHINGTON -- The prophets of gloom and doom have taken over the Dirksen Senate Office Building in a battle of rhetoric and hyperbole over what will happen if Congress does or doesn't pass a constitutional amendment to require the federal government to balance its annual budget.

On separate floors, the chief sponsor of the proposal, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, and the chief opponent, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, are taking testimony on the ramifications of the measure, with each playing host to witnesses who agree with them. It's a standard ritual on Capitol Hill for such preachings to the choir, but seldom do the preachers hold rival rehearsals in such proximity.

Simon, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, says his legislation is essential to force Congress to halt "government abuse" by requiring that it do its business on a strict pay-as-you-go basis. He is soliciting echoes of his own view from the likes of former Sen. Paul Tsongas, former Attorney General Griffin Bell and David Stanley, head of the National Taxpayers Union.

One floor below, Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is providing a forum for ranking administration figures such as Budget Director Leon Panetta, Attorney General Janet Reno and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to back up his contention that the amendment would come close to ending the Republic as we know it.

Polls indicate that the public, fed up with Congress, is strongly on Simon's side, and 32 states have passed resolutions supporting the calling of a constitutional convention to write such an amendment. For approval, only 34 are needed, but three states have rescinded earlier approval, an action that proponents say isn't valid.

At any rate, Simon is taking the alternative, congressional route and has more than 50 co-sponsors, with 67 votes needed for the required two-thirds passage and 60 to block a filibuster. Although he is a liberal who supported President Clinton's budget-cutting efforts, Simon argues that unless Congress is forced to act harshly through new taxes, deep spending cuts or both, it will duck. He likes the gag that says "there were so many heroes at the Alamo because there was no back door."

Byrd this week is turning over his committee to wholesale scare tactics from the administration. Panetta testified that because "rising deficits act as an economic equalizer in times of recession," removing the option of running a deficit in hard times could "turn recessions into depressions." He said the amendment would toss budgeting into the courts for interpretations of whether or not the budget was in balance, putting the government on a "fiscal yo-yo."

Reno said the amendment would prevent Clinton from putting 100,000 more police on the streets, as he has proposed, from building more prisons and would lead to hardened criminals being released as a result of overcrowding. She said boot camps for first offenders would be undercut and so would treatment for drug abusers, unleashing more havoc in the streets. And this, she insisted, was "a best-case scenario."

Shalala warned that the amendment's passage would result in "shedding the social safety net," would "send Head Start back to the starting gate," would "push 1.5 million older Americans into poverty" and "wipe out the entire AIDS research program." Social Security recipients, she went on, would lose the equivalent of a month's check each year. "Are we to ask elderly and disabled Americans not to pay their bills," she asked, "or not to eat that month?"

With Byrd acting as a helpful interlocutor, Shalala also testified that passage of the amendment, which might not take effect until 2001, would undermine the president's health-care reform package by bleeding necessary funding. That argument is sure to be a key one raised against the amendment when the full Senate takes it up next week.

But the administration is fighting the amendment on the more immediate grounds that with Clinton committed to deficit reduction it's not needed and is, in Panetta's words, "a prescription for chaos."

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