Balanced-Budget Bid Is Gaining Support In the New Congress

Critics say it would endanger the economy but concede US debt problem is worsening

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HERE it comes again - the explosive proposal that horrifies government bureaucrats, worries President Clinton, but thrills many taxpayers. It's the proposed balanced-budget amendment to the United States Constitution.

Within weeks, Congress begins debating the 308-word amendment that would touch every American's pocketbook. Advocates are optimistic. Strong support is coming from Republicans and Democrats, including the House and Senate freshmen class.

Foes are revving up their opposition, though. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, a strident critic, denounces the amendment as a spineless retreat by lawmakers afraid to make tough budget decisions. He condemns the amendment as ``a cop-out'' that is as ``phony as a $3 bill.'' He claims that it would put the economy in a constitutional straitjacket.

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Critics warn that if the amendment were passed, and if Washington were forced to live within its income, taxes would rise, Social Security payments would be cut, health-care reform would be killed, and jobs would be lost.

Mr. Clinton, writing to Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, urged the amendment's defeat, saying it would ``endanger our economy'' by cutting outlays during recessions. ``A balanced-budget amendment could threaten the livelihoods of millions of Americans,'' the president said. ``I cannot put them in such peril.''

Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, the Senate's leading champion of the amendment, counters that unless deficits are eliminated, every federal program is put at risk.

He told an American Association of Retired Persons meeting last year: ``If we do not act, interest payouts will spiral upward until they consume not only Social Security, but also health care, education, transportation investments....''

Senator Simon warns: ``A rising tide of red ink sinks all boats.''

Even opponents of the amendment agree that there is a deepening problem with the national debt. The numbers appall both taxpayers and congressmen.

For example, in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, the total debt owed by the federal government was $909 billion - or $4,012 for every man, woman, and child in the US.

By this week, federal officials say the debt had risen to $4.834 trillion - or $18,636.02 for every American. A family of four owes, through its federal government, $74,544.08 to creditors.

Like any debtor, American taxpayers now find their obligations coming due. Interest payments, once a tiny part of the federal budget, have grown into the third-largest item at $230 billion a year. Interest costs trail only defense and Social Security; and by 1997, interest expenses will equal defense outlays at $274 billion each, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D) of Indiana has noted that the nation's economic philosophy has become: ``Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow our kids can pay our debts.''

This isn't the first attempt to rein in America's credit-card government. As long ago as 1936, Rep. Harold Knutson of Minnesota proposed the first balanced-budget amendment.

More recently, in 1992, the House voted 280-to-153 in favor of a similar amendment, just short of the 289 votes needed for the necessary two-thirds majority. Similarly, in 1986, the Senate voted 66-to-34 (67 votes were required) to adopt a budget amendment.

Before the new amendment becomes law, it must get two-thirds majorities in both houses, plus ratification by three-fourths (38) of the states. The president plays no role in amending the Constitution.

The proposed amendment, which could go into effect as early as 1999, states in brief:

* Outlays cannot exceed receipts, nor can the national debt be raised, unless three-fifths of the members agree in both houses.

* The president must submit a balanced budget.

* Balanced-budget requirements can be waived by a majority vote in both houses in case of war or a serious military threat to national security.

* Congress may rely on estimates when adopting a budget.

Senator Byrd scoffs at the whole concept. ``This is a `feel good' amendment,'' he told fellow lawmakers. ``Total outlays and total receipts cannot be known at the beginning of any fiscal year. All that we will have is estimates.... Actual outlays and receipts frequently vary from our estimates by billions of dollars.''

The senator directs stinging criticism at his colleagues. ``Why not just have a constitutional amendment that says: `The members of Congress shall have a spine?' ''

But there is growing sentiment that something must be done. The Senate Judiciary Committee reminded Congress that Thomas Jefferson once said: ``We should consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves.''

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