Balanced Budget Baloney

January 11, 1995

Once members of Congress know exactly, chapter and verse, the pain that the government must live with in order to get to a balanced budget, their knees will buckle.

With this statement, House Republican leader Dick Armey should win a blue ribbon for candid political discourse. In dealing with the proposed balanced budget amendment, politicians are not supposed to talk truth. Baloney and blarney are the order of the day.

Mr. Armey's blunt comment came in answer to Democratic taunts that GOP legislators seeking a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget by 2002 should spell out exactly which government programs and entitlements they will slash to reach this trillion-dollar goal. Republicans won't say, not only because it is bad politics, but because they just don't know.

Actually, many liberal Democrats are not merely against a balanced budget amendment. They are against balancing the budget -- period. So they raise all sorts of legal and arcane budgeting issues, many of which have great merit, that from their viewpoint are strictly smokescreen.

From our viewpoint, which is conservative in an old-fashioned way, it matters a lot that the Constitution is not cluttered with provisions for which there are no means of enforcement. It matters a lot that the proposed amendment includes an escape hatch that can be activated any time by a three-fifths vote or that accounting gimmickry allows any number of items to be put off-budget.

The rush to amend the Constitution is really an admission that the government has been unable to adhere to prudent fiscal policies through the regular legislative process. Since lawmakers and presidents cannot find the will to eliminate huge annual deficits, which in any event could be a bad idea in a recession year, they are taking refuge in the device of merely proclaiming their intentions.

If the balanced budget amendment sails through despite all its faults, citizens should insist it be obeyed to the letter. No spending bill, no tax reduction, no regulation or entitlement should be enacted unless it is accompanied by actions holding Congress to the harsh timetable for ending deficits in seven years. Something equivalent to a balanced budget impact statement should be attached to every measure with fiscal implications.

Members of Congress indeed may tremble when they finally confront how drastically they will have to downsize the federal government to conform with the new constitutional mandate they soon will pass. But this is what the Gingrich revolution is supposedly all about. If its leaders, like Dick Armey, are to fulfill their proclaimed destiny, they are going to have to dress up the rank and file and make sure those knees don't buckle.

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