The US economy: preserve options

Ruth McNamee - a Republican state representative from Michigan - is not exactly a lawmaker with a name familiar to most Americans. Yet, by casting the decisive vote last week to block a state committee from reporting the balanced-budget amendment to the full Michigan House - despite White House urging to vote for the measure - she has taken a political stand that benefits all Americans.

Had the balanced-budget amendment been passed along to the Michigan House, the measure would most likely have been approved. Since the state Senate has already endorsed the amendment, Michigan would have become the 33rd state to require Congress either to write an amendment mandating a balanced budget or to call for a constitutional convention to do the same thing. Thirty-two states have approved the resolution. The measure would become effective when 34 states had done so. Montana votes on the matter Nov. 6.

Two issues are involved here:

* The balanced-budget resolution would entail serious consequences for the United States. The amendment could hamstring the economic management of the nation. Economic circumstances often change quickly in a democratic society with a free-market economy. The nation's highest officials need as much latitude as possible.

And so far as a constitutional convention is concerned, there has only been one other in the nation's history - the convention that drafted the Constitution. Would Americans really want to call a convention on one issue - in this case, a balanced-budget amendment - that might subsequently prompt a rewriting of other important constitutional provisions?

* There is something deeper in all this that also warrants a national discussion. The balanced-budget amendment is but one part of a larger agenda of action supported by many conservatives which could be the focal point of consideration during the next four years. Such an agenda would certainly occupy a high profile in a second Reagan administration. Its direction would be to limit government action on the economy.

The overall agenda can be best found in an interesting program formulated by economist Martin Anderson. Mr. Anderson proposes that a new ''economic bill of rights'' be written into the Constitution. This bill of rights would include the balanced-budget amendment, a limitation on federal spending, the line-item budget veto for the president, a return to the gold standard, and a ban on wage and price controls. Mr. Anderson deserves credit for articulating an approach long advocated by others.

The line-item veto may have some merit, although it would also present jurisdictional problems, given the checks and balances inherent in the federal system. But beyond that, the remaining elements of the Anderson agenda would add up to a significant alteration of the nation's economy.

Consider the issue of the gold standard: South Africa and the Soviet Union are now the world's main suppliers of gold. Would the US really want to base its monetary system on a metal controlled by those two nations? And the gold standard hardly prevented the US from experiencing the Great Depression.

So what does all this add up to for the American public? First, Ms. McNamee, the Michigan legislator and former mayor of Birmingham, Mich., deserves commendation for not being stampeded into voting for the balanced-budget amendment. Better that all Americans, and the nation's lawmakers, think that step through more carefully. And second, it means the amendment is only one step in a larger economic agenda that seems likely to come to the political fore - an agenda that deserves a careful public debate on each of its parts.

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