Only making hard choices will balance the budget



WASHINGTON -- The noisy controversy over the balanced budget amendment is a classic example of American politics at its rock-bottom worst.

The positions of Republicans and Democrats alike have been shot through with hyperbole and hypocrisy. The result has been the projection to the electorate of a radically misleading picture of what is at stake.

All along supporters of the amendment have oversold it, suggesting that in itself it would offer a solution to the growing federal deficits. That is why it has been so popular -- backed by 79 percent of the voters in the most recent poll conducted for the New York Times.

The critical element, however, in achieving a balanced budget, or even moving in that direction, has always been the willingness of the president and Congress to make the tough choices on what programs to cut.

And no one who understands the federal budget believes that can be accomplished without changes in the basic entitlement programs, including Social Security.

But the same poll that found 79 percent support for an amendment found that support dropping to 36 percent when respondents were told it would require reductions in Social Security.

That finding was, of course, the rationale for the majority of Democrats who opposed the amendment -- that it was a stealth attack on Social Security.

But those Democrats know full well that there has been no such intention on the part of the Republicans; that is a risk neither party is willing to take.

So what has been going on here has been a de facto conspiracy to con the public into believing the choice on the amendment is stark and portentous.

The Republican hypocrisy is striking because so many of them in both houses of Congress joined enthusiastically in Reaganomics 1981 -- adherents of the voodoo economics that raised defense spending while cutting taxes and, as a result, made the deficit what it is today.

These are also the Republicans who would not cast a single vote in either the House or Senate for President Clinton's deficit reduction budget in 1993. And these are also the Republicans advocating the balanced budget amendment while also advocating a middle-class tax cut and, according to the "Contract with America," higher defense spending once again -- including even a revival of "star wars."

The roll call had no sooner been completed in the Senate than the speculation began about the political fallout -- and, once again, hyperbole was the rule.

It is true, of course, that the Republicans will try to make the vote against the balanced budget amendment a burden for Democratic Senate candidates next year. That unquestionably was a factor in the decisions of some with their seats at stake next year -- including liberal Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware -- to support the amendment.

But the Democrats can make an effective counter-argument with many voters by citing the putative threat to the future of Social Security. The threat is precisely the same whether or not there is an amendment, but political arguments don't always square with the facts.

There is also a great deal of extravagant talk about how the defeat of the amendment represents a serious blow to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. His leading rival of the moment, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, obviously thinks so, judging by the alacrity with which he leaped into the breach to propose a legislative attempt to replace the amendment.

But the first caucuses and primaries are still a year away, and it is nonsense to imagine many voters faulting Dole then because he could not muster 67 votes for the balanced budget amendment. If that were the case, then it would be equally logical to credit the majority leader with recruiting another Democrat, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, into the Republican majority.

This is all conventional political game-playing in Washington. The balanced budget amendment wasn't going to change the lives of ordinary Americans. And the politicians in both parties are still as intimidated as ever about taking the hard steps that would be necessary to make significant progress in reducing the deficit.

The voters may have thought they were voting for change last Nov. 8, but some things never change.

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