Balanced Budget: May Your Dreams Come True

February 17, 1994|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Back in the days when Republican presidents used to call for a Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment without ever proposing a balanced budget, I used to support the idea on the principle of the old Chinese curse: May your dreams come true. It would force these hypocrites to live by their alleged principles.

Now we have a Democratic president who actually has done far more than his predecessors to bring us back toward fiscal responsibility. Yet President Clinton opposes the Balanced Budget Amendment. This is rather noble, considering that in its current form the amendment would be unlikely to take effect until after the end of Clinton's second term. He could have the cheap political advantage of supporting the Balanced Budget Amendment at little or no practical cost.

Instead, while President Reagan and Bush were for fiscal discipline in the abstract but not in the particular, Mr. Clinton seems to be for fiscal discipline in the particular but not in the abstract. That, politically, is the worst of both worlds.

The administration has published various nightmare scenarios of what it would take to achieve a balanced budget in the year 2000. The tax increases and/or spending cuts described therein are indeed politically unimaginable. The White House is right to note that the politicians pushing the Balanced Budget Amendment do not spell out or endorse the actual specific consequences of such a requirement.

But the administration's nightmare scenarios ''prove too much,'' as the lawyers like to say. They are not an argument against a Balanced Budget Amendment. They are an argument against a balanced budget itself. Yet the very document containing them cautiously describes a balanced budget as ''this laudable goal.''

When will ''this laudable goal'' ever be achieved if it is unthinkable to achieve it between now and the year 2000? By the administration's own economic assumptions, the year 2000 will mark nine years of continuous prosperity and growth. It will mark nearly two decades since the annual megadeficits began and almost a decade since serious work began to curtail them. If we cannot achieve a balanced budget in even a single year between now and 2000, we can never achieve one.

Far from proving the undesirability of a Balanced Budget Amendment, then, the administration's nightmare scenarios show why it is -- unfortunately -- desirable. Yes, most of its noisiest supporters are disingenuous. Yes, there is no particular reason why government income and outgo should have to match in any particular year. Yes, it's a shame -- and an ominous precedent -- to clutter the Constitution.

Nevertheless, the White House nightmare scenarios demonstrate that a new disciplinary mechanism is needed. Is it unreasonable to expect Americans ever, in any one year, to pay in full for what they demand from the government? Does anyone believe that failure to do so, continuously, year after year, is not harmful?

There are indeed people who argue this. They are mistaken. More important, though, they are a small fraction of those who oppose a Balanced Budget Amendment, most of whom claim to support the goal but not the procedure, or only object to the rigidity of a mandated balanced budget every year. This larger group should be given pause by the White House's demonstration that even one year's balanced budget is impossible under current arrangements. The nightmare scenarios show that balancing the budget is, indeed, politically unthinkable. The merit of a constitutional amendment is that it will, of necessity, change what is politically thinkable.

The nightmare scenarios unintentionally demolish one argument in particular against a Balanced Budget Amendment. That is the fiscal-policy argument: that we need the flexibility to run a deficit in slow times, to stimulate the economy.

The idea of fiscal policy is supposed to be that you run a deficit in bad times and a balance or even a surplus in good times. If it is now politically unthinkable to achieve a balanced budget, let alone a surplus, even in the best of times, the mechanism is seriously broken. It has got to be fixed before it can be of use again.

(The current version of the amendment would allow deficit spending on a three-fifths vote of both houses of Congress. So the mechanism remains available for emergencies in any event.)

A columnist in the Washington Post sneers that only the ''policy elites'' are still fixated on the deficit, while ''most people'' are more concerned with achieving and enjoying economic prosperity.

Of course what really matters is actual economic prosperity, and not some bookkeeping number. But we unhappy few, if few we are, cannot be bullied out of our belief that the deficit imperils America's long-term prosperity. In the courage of our unhappiness, we defy weapon-words like ''elites!''

Anyway, both sides of the Balanced Budget Amendment debate play the tiresome game of populist one-upsmanship. The pro-amendment forces also claim to represent ''the people'' who are furious at ''beltway elites'' running the nation into debt.

Polls suggest that ''the people'' do want a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget, even though the real effect of such an amendment would be to protect ''the RTC people'' from their own appetites. The people should get what they want. They deserve it. May their dreams come true.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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