Who's in charge?

I don't see how the country will have a balanced budget till it tightens up its form of government, and I see very little chance of that. That means, I fear , that a continuing big deficit (now running at something like $200 billion) will continue to produce inflation, which is the back-door way of balancing the budget: paying the deficit by printing more money and thereby decreasing the value of the dollar. It is an easy, ignoble, and rather dangerous shortcut.

One reason Washington can't discipline itself on the deficit is that it's so hard to say who's in charge. Who's to blame if we run in the red? - the President, the Senate, or the House of Representatives? They are three centers of power. The Founding Fathers made them that way 200 years ago because they feared George III. As political scientist James M. Sundquist says of the three, ''none of them feels responsible . . . and none of them can be held accountable for it.'' One threat is that people will lose confidence in government itself.

A new idea has now come to the front. Why not hold a constitutional convention to require Congress and the president to balance the budget? This would be the first use in history of the second method of amending the Constitution. Article V offers two ways: the customary route of a single amendment (which has been used 26 times) and the alternative of a constitutional convention, which has never been used. To hold such a convention requires petitions from two-thirds of the states, or 34. Many people will be surprised to learn that 32 such petitions have actually been received. If only two more states make the request, it appears that Congress must call a convention. Petitions are now actually pending in seven additional states; in two of these (California and Washington) the issue may be placed on the ballot. If the convention is held, its recommendation will require ratification by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (i.e., 38). Things may be coming to a head.

But it's less simple than it looks. It is true that dissatisfaction with government has been growing. (A typical statement, by C. Douglas Dillon, former secretary of the Treasury: ''I very much doubt that . . . we can long continue to afford the luxury of the division of power and responsibility between our executive and legislative branches of the government, which, since the founding of our Republic, has differentiated our system from the parliamentary system used in other democratic countries.'') He thinks our system produces unacceptable deadlock and stalemate in Washington.

But that is a very large matter. The question likely to come before us here is whether a new constitutional convention, if held, can be confined to one subject - the balanced budget. Will it be so restricted?

When the original convention was held in 1787, it was strictly limited ''for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.'' Little heed did members in Philadelphia pay to that: Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, scrapped the articles and created a new government from scratch. It was the most radical and successful instrument of its day.

The point is that the convention members assumed almost sovereign power (subject to state ratification). And so today if a convention meets, will it be bound by instructions to deal only with the budget? America, for example, is the only democracy that separates executive from legislative authority; will a new convention try to alter that?

Some are delighted at the idea of a convention; some are terrified. Two centuries ago Jefferson wanted the Constitution revised every generation; Hamilton in the last of the Federalist Papers assured states that defects could be corrected by later amendment. All regarded it as an experiment. Yet the basic structure remains intact. That's good in a way.

But so often in Washington we wonder who's in charge? Political parties used to be a connecting link, but they have lost power. Big special-interest groups that raise campaign chests have grown in strength. The budget deficit continues. . . . Maybe a specialized budget-balancing amendment, produced by a constitutional convention, will work. We seem to be edging in that direction.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.