Fraud in the Senate

March 03, 1994

By Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's calculation, at least one-fifth of the Senate is a fraud. We think he is being modest. We would guess at least one-third of the world's greatest deliberative body is so craven, so fear-ridden, so lacking in principle and courage that it would vote to muck up the Constitution with a balanced-budget amendment that most members know is a phony.

Lest Mr. Mitchell charge that we exaggerate, here is how we figure. The Senate just voted 63-37 for the proposed amendment, four votes shy of the two-thirds majority required for changing the Constitution. The senator from Maine, a valiant figure in opposing the amendment, said if a secret vote could have been taken at least half the Senate would have voted against it. That means some 13 senators cast dishonest votes. When you add to that the seven Democratic senators who voted for a doomed watered-down amendment strictly designed to provide them political cover before voting against the Constitution-buster, you get to 20 senators -- one-fifth of the membership.

But that focuses too much on the Democratic side. Although Republican senators voted 34-3 in favor of the balanced-budget amendment, we cannot believe more than a score believed in their hearts this was right. So add our 14 suspect Republicans to Mr. Mitchell's 20 suspect Democrats and you could conclude that one-third of the Senate should be held in contempt.

Maryland's two Democrats, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, are exonerated. They voted against the amendment. The main concern of these big spenders, however, is that the amendment would work -- that it would coerce Congress to make economy-wrecking cuts.

Our main concern is that the amendment would not work -- that it would merely give Congress an excuse to put off fiscal austerity until the next century while pretending to the American public that the legislative branch is serious. It is not. While a start was made last August by reducing a projected five-year $1.5 trillion growth of the national debt by $500 billion, the Washington Establishment has no stomach for doing much more.

President Clinton holds out the hope that health care reform will magically produce savings, but the Congressional Budget Office says the reverse. Lawmakers chant the litany that entitlement spending is the runaway element in deficit spending, but shrink from tackling Social Security. As the knives go in the discretionary one-third of the budget, cries of pain are heard from congressional districts where military bases are being closed.

The fact is the federal government can cut the deficit only by cutting the deficit. Now! It can't do it by passing a constitutional amendment full of loopholes that ostensibly would mandate arbitrary balance, year after year, without reference to the state of the economy, starting -- are you ready for this? -- in the year 2001. If this smacks more of celluloid than of substance, it most assuredly is.

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