The irresponsible budgeteers

So the Senate has now approved a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget. There probably isn't an American taxpayer who does not smile at the idea of making the federal government operate in the black. But it is fortunate that the measure must still pass the gauntlet of the House and be ratified by 38 states before becoming law. This gives the American public plenty of time to understand - and resist - a dubious measure.

The question is whether passage of such an amendment would actually correct the country's severe economic problems, or merely provide ''a fig leaf to cover our embarrassment over the deficit,'' as Republican senator Charles Mathias cogently commented. The likelihood is the latter.

Congress already has all the legal tools it needs, including a federal law, to balance the budget. Throwing the onus on the Constitution could begin to make a farce of that fundamental document. Since the amendment allows deficit spending as long as three-fifths of both chambers would vote for it (a smaller vote than required for many appropriations), the constitutional objective would probably more often be ignored than met. The net effect would be to devalue the highest law of the land.

Using the Constitution instead of the political process to make economic policy is dangerous. At a time when not only the national but the global economy is in such difficulties, when there are so many economic unknowns because of vast technological change, when no one has yet hit upon a formula for curing boom-and-bust business cycles, when economic forecasting is such an imperfect science, the US government needs flexibility in its budget practices. It should not have its hands tied.

Not only liberal Democrats make this point. Some very eminent conservative Republican economists warn against prescribing rules for the indefinite future as part of the Constitution.

This is no case for chronic deficit financing. Indeed the movement for a balanced budget amendment, if nothing else, highlights the horror of runaway deficits and the failure of the administration and the Congress to do something about them. There is a simple answer. If the President wants a balanced budget , let him submit a balanced budget. If the Congress wants a balanced budget, let it adopt a balanced budget. Talking up a ''BBA'' may be good politics, but it only diverts attention from the real problem - the political irresponsibility of those who make the budget laws. In the end, the voter is bound to catch up with the ruse.

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