No Way to Balance

THERE oughtta be a law! Or an amendment to the Constitution.

If Congress can't balance the US budget on its own, let's force the lawmakers to square spending with revenue through an edict in the nation's charter.

That's the deceptively simple idea behind two constitutional amendments getting an enthusiastic look in Congress. It appears likely that Congress will adopt one of the amendments this election year. Three-fourths of the states would have to ratify the amendment for it to become law.

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But the push for a balanced-budget amendment looks like an attempt by lawmakers, spooked by anti-incumbent fervor, to substitute parchment for political courage. It's a distraction from the real work to be done.

Yes, something has to be done about the budget deficit, projected to reach nearly $400 billion this year. The United States cannot go on borrowing at such rates from foreigners and future generations of Americans. That's the road to economic decline.

The solution to the budget crisis is clear: The American polity must summon immense political will to bring spending in line with receipts. It will require revenue increases and large cuts in spending, notably for defense and entitlement programs, not excluding Social Security and Medicare.

Proponents of a balanced-budget amendment say it will force lawmakers to exercise a fiscal discipline they otherwise find politically impossible. However, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction act was supposed to exert similar pressure on Congress, until the law was effectively nullified by accounting gimmicks and rosy economic projections. What's to keep lawmakers from treating a balanced-budget amendment with equal contempt?

An amendment would not be self-enforcing. Congress and the White House would still have to make the painful taxing and spending choices needed to avoid an "unconstitutional" deficit.

Don't count on the courts to bail out the feckless political branches. Judges find it hard enough running schools and prisons; they aren't about to set the national budget. Legal challenges under a balanced-budget amendment likely would be deemed "nonjusticiable" and be kicked back to the political branches, where budgeting belongs.

An amendment also could have harmful economic consequences, especially in periods of sluggishness. Deficits are deepest during recessions - not the time for tax increases or hasty spending cuts.

The movement for a balanced-budget amendment says as much about the state of US politics as do deficits themselves, for the movement reflects a politics bereft of seriousness.

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