THE leadership of the House of Representatives agreed last week to schedule a vote this Thursday on a proposed balanced-budget amendment to the United States Constitution.
Over the past couple of weeks, prospects for the amendment have turned sharply downward. Two weeks ago, passage was considered nearly inevitable. This week, sponsors are scrambling to shore up their eroding support, and the vote is too close to call.
Thursday's vote, according to one analyst, Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "will be one of the most important votes members of Congress have cast in recent decades."
The proposed amendment would require the president to submit balanced budgets. Congress could, by a three-fifths vote, override the balancing requirement.
The House is scheduled to vote Thursday; a Senate vote will follow by two to three weeks. For passage, two-thirds of the members in each chamber must approve the amendment; then the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (38 of them) must ratify it within seven years. Once ratified, the amendment would take effect two years later. The change, if budgets are in fact balanced, would be dramatic. The deficit in the current budget is estimated to be around $400 billion - well over a quarter of the entir e budget.
The vote in the Senate, as in the House, is too close to call. But the Senate will almost certainly be influenced by how the House votes.
House passage of the amendment will require 290 votes. As the week begins, supporters estimate their numbers at between 280 and 305, with some supporters wavering. The Democratic leadership in the House has been working hard against the amendment. In the Senate, the opposition has been led by the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.
Senator Byrd has met individually with most of the Democratic senators in the past couple weeks to argue against the amendment. He predicted last week that it would fail. The sponsor of the amendment in the Senate, Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, said the vote would be very close.
The outside lobbying against the amendment has been led by public-employee unions, which are not only lobbying aggressively on Capitol Hill, but also running media campaigns in the home districts of wavering members. "That is making members nervous," says Ed Lorenzen, an aide to the author of the House proposal, Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas. "I don't know if it's changing their votes, but it's definitely making members nervous."
The AFL-CIO, part of a loose coalition of some 80 organizations opposing the amendment, has aired radio advertisements in Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, and Vermont.
The radio spots call the amendment a "stunt" and a "gimmick" when members of Congress "already have the authority to balance the budget any time they want."
In Ohio, for example, the spots claim that the state would lose 135,000 jobs and $22 billion in the first year the amendment takes effect. The unions commissioned a study by Wharton Econometrics, which estimates that if the deficit were erased by 1995 with equal parts spending cuts and tax increases, personal income nationally would be cut by 8 percent to 14 percent.
"They [members of Congress] need to be thinking about the impact on their constituents," says Jerry Klepner, director of legislative affairs at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
SPECULATION on the impact of balancing the budget on Americans cuts two ways. Cuts in federal spending mean cuts in services and benefits, loss of federal jobs and contracts, and an overall decline in a major sector of the economy. But the deficit, and the debt that it accumulates, is itself a long-term drag on the economy, especially on growth of productivity.
Amending the Constitution will not balance federal budgets. It only adds greater pressure on the president and Congress to pay the high political costs necessary to balance budgets, with the possibility that failure could bring the judicial branch of government into the fray as an enforcer.
In recent weeks, the House leadership has sought to attach some hard-nosed enforcement rules to the balanced-budget amendment so that members could not vote for the general principle without voting on measures to apply it. The leaders have dropped this idea, at least for now.
Conservatives are concerned that a balanced-budget amendment could lead to higher taxes, with a constitutional amendment as a political excuse. Many would prefer an amendment that required three-fifths majorities for raising taxes, but they will not push the idea when amendments are proposed tomorrow and Thursday. They want to avoid dividing support for the basic amendment between multiple proposals.
Says Mr. Klepner of AFSCME about this week's lobbying: "I think it will be a very intense political fight."