Congress struggles to rein in spending Balanced-budget amendment's fate remains uncertain

January 18, 1995|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Republican drive to put Congress under the restraints of a balanced-budget amendment has taken on the tone of an addict's plea for help: Stop us before we spend again.

"It's the only hope we have," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Hatch, along with other conservative Republicans, says he fears that the country may be headed for bankruptcy because Congress cannot just say no. "We've got to get the amendment in place to have the fiscal mechanism to force us to live within our means," he said.

Supporters of the amendment say they have barely the two-thirds vote needed in both houses. The passion of opponents was evident yesterday when Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, invoked a rarely used parliamentary device to halt action on the amendment, at least for 24 hours.

But as Republican leaders try to resolve a debate that has simmered for a half-century, it is still not clear that the amendment would work as intended -- or that the public will want it to work once it understands the consequences.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, $1 trillion worth of spending cuts would be needed to balance the budget by 2002, as the constitutional amendment requires. Already, the Capitol is ringing with the calls of special-interest groups pleading to be exempted.

"What's most likely is that Congress will come up with an unprecedented amount of gimmicks to get around it," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocate for the concerns of the poor.

"If the amendment works," he said, "it may be like Prohibition: The cuts will be so severe, they will lead to recession, maybe two recessions, Congress won't be able to act, and the amendment will finally be repealed."

Yet the balanced-budget amendment this year may have its best chance of winning congressional approval since the first version was introduced in 1936.

Many swing-vote lawmakers say their skepticism has been overcome by a sense that Congress won't get serious about reducing the $5 trillion national debt until this symbolic hurdle is cleared.

"We may just have to get it out of our system," said Republican Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, a former opponent of the balanced-budget amendment who is now having second thoughts. She acknowledged that the amendment "isn't going to reduce the deficit by 1 cent."

The stakes are high because Republicans made approval of the amendment a major plank in their congressional campaign platforms last fall.

The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, contends that without the pressure of a constitutional amendment, his party would be unable to take the painful steps necessary to balance the budget.

'The acme of arrogance'

Mr. Byrd declared yesterday that "it is the acme of arrogance" for Congress to pass a constitutional requirement that the budget be balanced without first detailing what sacrifices that might entail.

But the House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, bluntly predicted what would happen if the spending cuts needed to balance the budget were revealed before the amendment was passed.

"The fact of the matter is, 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," he said in a recent television interview.

The House and Senate are considering similar versions of the amendment, both of which would require the budget to be balanced by 2002 or in the second year after ratification by at least 38 states.

Once the amendment takes effect, the president would be required every year to submit to Congress a budget in which revenue matches spending. Congress could revise the budget, but it could not spend more money than it has unless a three-fifths majority of each house of Congress approved. A three-fifths vote would also be required to raise the limit on the national debt.

Exceptions would be provided in case of war or "imminent and serious military threat."

No specific enforcement method is provided for. Technically, the federal courts could intervene in budget decisions, but they are not expected to do so, according to William P. Barr, who served as attorney general in the Bush administration.

Approval of the amendment would give the lawmakers "some moral fiber and changes the question from whether we have a balanced budget to how we balance the budget," said Martha Phillips, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a grass-roots lobby that is working to eliminate the budget deficit.

Critics note that Congress has often proved adept in slipping out of self-imposed spending limits. Among the recent failures was the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1985, which was supposed to have put the budget on a path to being balanced by 1991.

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