Balanced Budgets

THE United States Constitution was never intended to be the vehicle for setting national economic policy. Yet it is being nudged in that direction: Today, the US Senate is set to debate the latest version of a balanced-budget amendment. If it musters a two-thirds majority in the Senate and House, it then goes to the states for ratification.

The main features of the proposal, introduced by Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, would require the president to submit a balanced budget prior to each fiscal year. Congress would be required to pass a balanced budget, unless three-fifths of the total number of members in each house voted - in a roll-call vote - to accept a specific deficit level. The three-fifths standard also would be applied to votes to raise the government's debt ceiling. The amendment's provisions could be waived in time of declared war or in the face of an ``imminent and serious military threat to national security.'' The measure would take effect in 1999 or two years after ratification, whichever is later.

We share the economic concerns voiced regarding constitutional amendments to mandate balanced federal budgets, which we oppose. But let there be truth in labeling: Despite its title, this is not a balanced-budget amendment, at least in the strict sense of ensuring balanced budgets. It is an amendment that makes it more difficult to run deficits, forces conscious decisions on the magnitude of deficits to be run, and establishes greater accountability if Congress opts for a budget in the red. Requiring the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress, as the Simon measure would do, is a useful exercise and can wrap a White House in an aura of fiscal responsibility. But Congress enacts the budget. Under this amendment, lawmakers can still run deficits, even in peacetime - although with greater difficulty than under current simple-majority procedures.

To their credit, Senator Simon and his cosponsors (many of whom are up for reelection this year) have highlighted three essential elements in the budget process in Congress: greater accountability, flexibility, and more conscious decisions.

But these do not require a constitutional amendment to implement. Public sentiment alone already has pushed the White House and Congress to tighten their belts, however slowly. This is preferable to cluttering the Constitution with amendments, particularly when they deliver less than they promise.

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