The proposed balanced budget amendment (BBA) is advancing on the US Constitution in a pincers movement.
On one flank is the drive for a constitutional convention -- which would be the first since the Founding Fathers wrote the original document - to consider an amendment requiring the federal government to match outgo with income. That initiative, led by the National Taxpayers Union, is just three states short of its goal.
On the other flank is the National Tax-Limitation Committee (NTLC), pushing Congress to adopt a BBA, which would then have to be ratified by 35 states. Lewis K. Uhler, founder and president of the half-million-member NTLC, expects the Senate to pass the amendment by mid-May; then, he hopes, the House of Representatives will do likewise before it adjourns in August for the fall election campaign. A two-thirds vote in each chamber is required.
Mr. Uhler, an attorney, was a member of Gov. RonaldReagan's California administration for 31/2 years, serving as director of the state Office of Economic Opportunity, assistant secretary of the Human Relations Agency, and chairman of the Governor's Tax Reduction Task Force. When interviewed April 14 at his office in Loomis, a tiny community near Sacramento, Uhler was preparing to leave for Washington to direct the lobbying effort in the Senate for the BBA.
The NTLC has backed tax-limitation and budget-control initiatives in many states since its organization in 1975. In fact, it proposed a property tax-limitation law in California before the names Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis and the label ''Prop 13'' became national bywords. But its chief objective was and is to get the BBA -- coauthored by Uhler and conservative economist Milton Friedman -- into the Constitution.
Why do Messrs. Uhler, Friedman, and other advocates think Congress will act favorably this year on the BBA?
Momentum in favor of the amendment has been built on Capitol Hill, says Uhler.
The requirement for a constitutional majority of two-thirds means that 67 senators and 291 US representatives will have to vote ''yea'' if the amendment is to pass. Uhler says that 60 or more senators have cosponsored the bill or indicated they will support it; the number of House members backing the amendment recently topped 200, he adds.
The BBA has strong bipartisan support in both chambers, but the Democratic leadership of the House has bottled up the resolution in a subcommittee led by House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey. Getting it to the House floor will test the widely respected skill of Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R) of New York, a leader of the pro-BBA forces.
Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee is a sponsor of the amendment resolution, and it already has been approved by the Judiciary Committee. Among its strong Democratic advocates are Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona.
Uhler's responses to other questions about the BBA:
Is the issue divided along party lines?
We have made every conceiveable effort to make sure that it (the BBA effort) is bipartisan. More Republicans than Democrats have signed on to date, but there are such significant numbers of Democrats that it has remained bipartisan.
President Reagan's endorsement of the amendment was made in a rather off-handed way in a press conference. Do you expect a more explicit White House statement?
Yes. I think the administration -- and we have talked to people in the White House about it -- is preserving its options for the timing and circumstances of the endorsement.
Will the budget situation have an adverse effect on the drive for the amendment?
We've found that the dilemma confronting the Congress and the White House -- where it appears we'll have an imbalanced budget, it's just a question of how much -- has created an environment in which I think the likelihood of favorable consideration of the amendment will occur.
What's your strategy in the coming weeks?
We will lobby directly with the members on the Hill. Milton Friedman and I were there about three weeks ago. We sat down with Sens. (Alan J.) Dixon (D) and (Charles H.) Percy (R) of Illinois (uncommitted as yet on BBA). We, of course, met with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, the floor leader in the Senate, to work out who he should be talking to and who we should be.
Is there any objection to the BBA that is voiced more than others?
Probably the overriding objection is that this would create inflexibility - that being a constitutional rule it would take flexibility out of the hands of those whom we elect. Variations on that theme are that it puts an economic theory into the Constitution where it doesn't belong, and that we ought to expect Congress to discipline itself.
Our response is, first, that the problem is essentially constitutional in nature and should be remedied by a constitutional solution.