A bad idea whose time has come Balanced Budget Amendment: Election results made Senate passage likely.

November 18, 1996

THIS TIME it probably will happen. This time, as a result of the Nov. 5 election, the Senate is likely to muster the two-thirds vote that will send a so-called Balanced Budget Amendment to the states, where 38 yeas would signify approval. Thus, a mischievous gimmick seems destined for the U.S. Constitution -- a gimmick that will not balance the budget but merely give politicians an easy vote for pretending this is so. It is a bad idea whose time, unfortunately, may have come.

The amendment fails as an exercise in logic, economics and legislative mechanics:

It takes Congress off the hook, postponing achievement of a balanced budget until 2002.

It contains huge loopholes stating that through a three-fifths vote in each chamber Congress can ignore its provisions. (Imagine a First Amendment permitting Congress to suspend free speech, press and assembly!)

It takes from the federal government its theoretical Keynesian function of surplus financing in time of prosperity and deficit financing in event of recession. President Clinton proposes to correct this flaw by adding still another loophole to the amendment.

It tosses to the judiciary, in event of legal challenge, what should be the legislative function of determining whether a balanced budget has been achieved in any given year.

It ignores the reality that current budget calculations rely on using huge surpluses in the Social Security Trust Fund even though such surpluses are projected to disappear by 2020. Then all the IOUs in the so-called Trust Fund have to be paid out of general revenues on top of on-going obligations to finance entitlement programs, interest on the national debt, defense and other functions of government.

The Balanced Budget Amendment is clearly a quick fix that won't work. It has no more business in the Constitution than some of the other frivolous amendments now in fashion. Instead, there should be direct attacks on the deficits that for 27 straight years have quadrupled the national debt, raised interest costs to Pentagon dimensions and crunched the resources needed to combat pressing domestic problems.

The answer does not lie in political sleight-of-hand. It lies in curtailing spending, maintaining an adequate revenue base and honest budgeting that acknowledges that the profligacy of this generation will not be easily or quickly overcome. What is needed, right now, is a bipartisan determination to keep deficits going down through an enforcement mechanism that cannot be evaded. What the country does not need is cynical abuse of the Constitution.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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