Want a balanced budget? Nail the back door shut

November 20, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Before Paul Simon retires from the Senate in a couple of years, he intends to board up the back door to the Alamo.

Simon, a Democratic liberal from Illinois, has for some years tried to get Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would force it to balance the federal budget.

The heart of the amendment is simple: "Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed receipts for that fiscal year."

But, as one pundit put it, the concept sends shivers down Congress' spine -- or would if it had one.

Congress can balance the budget without an amendment. All it has to do is do it.

But it lacks the resolve. And so the debt piles up.

(As of Wednesday, the national debt was $4.748 trillion. How big is a trillion? To go back in time a million seconds, you would go back about 12 days. To go back a billion seconds, you would go back about 31 years. To go back a trillion seconds, you would go back to around 30,000 B.C., the Ice Age. That's how big a trillion is.)

"We do not like to do unpopular things here," Simon said of Congress. "There's an old saying that there were so many heroes at the Alamo because there was no back door. We need no back door."

Earlier this year, Simon came close to nailing the door shut. He got a majority of the Senate to approve his amendment -- winning more Republican votes than Democratic ones -- but he fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority he needed.

Now, the recent Republican tidal wave has given Simon's amendment new hope.

Such an amendment (with one significant difference) is part of the Republican "Contract With America," and Newt Gingrich, the next speaker of the House, says the amendment will come up for a vote in the House in January.

In the Senate, what had been the Simon-Hatch amendment, co-sponsored by Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will now probably become the Hatch-Simon amendment, reflecting the Senate's new Republican majority.

"And I think we have the votes to pass it now," Simon told me last week.

There is, however, a critical and largely overlooked difference between Simon's balanced budget amendment and the one in the Republican contract.

The Republican contract version is the old Ronald Reagan version: It basically states that you can't raise taxes to balance the budget without a three-fifths vote of Congress.

New taxes are anathema to many Republicans, especially Gingrich, so they like this version.

But what if America really needed a tax increase to avoid some terrible crisis? Would Congress really be able to muster a three-fifths vote?

"It would be almost impossible to get that kind of vote," Simon said, "and that could paralyze government."

In Simon's version, Congress could raise taxes as it does now: by a simple majority vote that cannot be filibustered. And Simon says that if the Republicans insist on a three-fifths majority to raise taxes, he and other Democrats will withhold their support.

"And that will kill the bill," Simon said. "If they go for the three-fifths vote, we will know that they are after political points and not real substance."

In other words, if the Republicans stick to the Reagan language, Simon believes they will be grandstanding on the issue so they can say the Democrats blocked a balanced budget amendment.

So Simon anticipates that there will be two balanced budget amendments introduced next year: his version and the Republican contract version.

But what about the substance of the amendments? Won't a balanced budget force massive cuts in programs as well as new taxes?

"Will it be painful?" Simon said. "Yes. Will it be less painful than not facing up to the problem? Yes."

As Simon sees it, the current system of massive debt is a gigantic welfare program for the rich. The wealthy, increasingly from foreign countries, buy American debt and are paid off by the American taxpayer.

Even if Congress passes a balanced budget amendment, however, 38 states would have to ratify it and it would not go into effect until 2002 or so.

Our debt will be even larger by then, but by then the back door to the Alamo would be nailed shut. And all of us would be forced to be heroes.

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