WASHINGTON — IT'S show time for the balanced budget amendment.
The United States Senate begins a history-making debate next week on the controversial amendment, which would profoundly change the way Washington works.
Virtually every American has a huge stake in the Senate vote. If the amendment passes Congress, and is approved by the states, it would touch hundreds of federal programs.
Alarm bells are ringing all over Washington, from the White House to dozens of agencies and departments of the government.
During the past 31 years, the federal bureaucracy became addicted to red ink. The government used borrowed money to fight the Vietnam war, to fend off Soviet communism, and to finance new programs for the poor and elderly.
Critics say that with the national debt now towering above $4.8 trillion, it's time to end government by credit card.
Opponents of the balanced budget amendment, led by President Clinton and Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, warn that passing it would be ``folly.'' They claim it would mandate drastic cuts in veterans' benefits, retirement pay for federal workers, farm subsidies, and scores of other entitlements, as well as programs like AIDS research.
Proponents, led by Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois and former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, say that if the amendment fails, it could be a ``disaster.'' Generations of Americans in the 21st century would be saddled with mountains of 20th century debt.
Voters already know how they feel. By a margin of nearly 4-to-1, a sampling of 1,013 adults told the Gallup organization in late January that they supported the amendment. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that without a change in the Constitution, Congress and the president will never control spending.
The clash of political ideologies sharpened this week when White House aides said Mr. Clinton opposes efforts to bring the budget into balance this decade. Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, says trying to balance the budget now with higher taxes or lower spending would damage the economy.
Critics respond: ``If not now, when the economy is growing, when will we do it?'' William Dunkelberg, president of the National Association of Business Economists, says: ``It's not sound policy to continue to spend more than we take in.''
Senator Simon observes that unless something is done quickly, interest payments on the escalating debt will begin eroding programs like Social Security by reigniting inflation. ``It doesn't do any good to get a $1,000 Social Security check if a quart of milk costs $100,'' he warns.
Simon notes that interest outlays have grown to $800 million per day - twice as much as Washington spends on all poverty programs, eight times as much as it spends on all educational programs.
Throughout this week, Senators Byrd and Simon used their positions to build support in the Congress and with public opinion.
Chairman Byrd brought a stellar parade of Cabinet members, scholars, and other experts before his Senate Appropriations Committee. All predicted dire results if the amendment passes.
Simon, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, brought in experts to answer Byrd's witnesses volley for volley. Reporters spent the week scurrying back and forth from hearing to hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building to catch key testimony.
Under Byrd's guidance, witnesses ranging from Leon Panetta, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, to Harvard University scholar Charles Fried laid out a number of arguments against the amendment. Among them:
* Falling deficits. Last year's budget deal in Congress whacked $504.8 billion out of deficits during the next five years. That proves this president and Congress are dedicated to cutting deficits. It is better to attack deficits program by program, rather than across-the-board, as this amendment may require, he says.
* Political dangers. One of the most important powers of Congress is its control of the purse. But what would happen if the budget began running a deficit, and Congress did not act? Would the president be empowered by this amendment to impound certain funds?, Mr. Fried asks.
* Judicial dangers. If Congress failed to balance the budget, could the courts raise taxes or cut spending to ensure that the Constitution was obeyed? Could any taxpayer sue Congress for overspending?
* Budget targets. Economic changes, such as a rapid rise in unemployment, can throw off budget estimates by $100 billion or more. What if Congress tries to balance the budget, but its estimates are wrong? Does the president freeze spending to stay in the black? Do the courts step in?
Simon's allies concede these are legitimate concerns, but insist they can all be dealt with under the proposed amendment.
Section 6 of the amendment says: ``The Congress shall enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation, which may rely on estimates of outlays and receipts.''
In other words, Congress is empowered to pass laws that will spell out the rules of the game. Those laws can limit challenges in the courts to budget decisions by Congress.
Constitutional lawyer John Armor told Simon's subcommittee that it will be extremely important for Congress to write such limits on judicial review into the enabling legislation. Otherwise, the amendment may not get the necessary support in three-fourths of the state legislatures.
As the showdown nears, Byrd worries that ``the sweet smoke of rhetoric'' will blind America to the dangers of this amendment.
Rep. Timothy Penny (D) of Minnesota says that when it comes to rhetoric, however, perhaps Thomas Jefferson should have the last word. Mr. Jefferson, who opposed government borrowing, said in 1798: ``We should consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves.''