Balancing the Budget

IN the Senate Judiciary Committee decision to postpone for a week the vote on the balanced-budget amendment, we can see the upper house of Congress functioning as it is supposed to: by slowing things down.

The Republicans are still hopeful of meeting their ambitious 100 days' timetable for their ``Contract With America.'' But some extra time to consider options, including possible Democratic alternatives, will be helpful.

One of the first lessons of the whirlwind 104th Congress is what a difference a day makes, as different proposals have their turn in the limelight - and risk getting radically revised: elimination of social benefits for legal immigrants, welfare reform, or whatever.

If the GOP contradicts itself, very well then, it contradicts itself. The whole debate about what kind of government the people want is healthy, and we would prefer to commend the Republicans for flexibility than to condemn them for inconsistency.

At issue on the balanced-budget amendment is what requirement, if any, there should be to detail how the budget would actually be balanced.

The Republicans' resistance to specifying where cuts would be made should be no surprise. After all, if they could articulate a plan of proposed cuts that they could be sure of getting through the Congress, they wouldn't need to amend the Constitution.

The appeal, alas, of a constitutional amendment is that it absolves Congress from responsibility. The strong public support for an amendment - up to 80 percent, by some estimates - reflects feeling that, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch has said, ``There is absolutely not the slightest discipline in these bodies with regards to spending.''

Politics is a process whereby the people get their collective business done. The people, through their representatives, decide what government services they want, and they should be willing to agree to pay for those services. Since 1969, the last year the federal budget was in balance, the people have implicitly demanded more than they were willing to pay for. Paul Tsongas and others are right to raise the issue of intergenerational equity.

Absent political will and intelligent, courageous decisionmaking on spending and taxation, the federal budget is likely to be set by a formula that enshrines the status quo; impasses are likely to be resolved in the courts.

One would expect that the newly energized Congress would be loath to admit to such a failure of politics.

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