The Budget Battle Ahead

THOSE of us who wanted the Senate to pass the balanced-budget amendment should avoid the temptation to grouse and ruminate. After the defeat of the amendment by a single vote last Thursday, two points are worth keeping in mind:

1. It's not over yet. Majority leader Bob Dole promises to bring the amendment to the floor again, probably during next year's fall campaign season when many who voted no -- such as Democrats Joseph R. Biden Jr., John Kerry, and Bill Bradley, and Republican Mark Hatfield -- face reelection.

In a democracy, the majority usually have their way -- eventually. And poll after poll -- as well as last fall's elections -- shows that Americans overwhelmingly favor a balanced-budget amendment. We feel state legislatures were deprived of a chance to debate and pass -- or reject -- the amendment, a chance they should have received. But might this effort now begin in the states? Under the Constitution, if two-thirds of legislatures demand it, a constitutional convention on a balanced budget would have to be called. Such a convention has never occurred, but it becomes an intriguing possibility.

We wish an amendment weren't necessary. We wish Congress had shown fiscal responsibility so that we would not need to tamper with the Constitution. The amendment itself is an inelegant beast: heavy on nitty-gritty specifics like ''excess of outlays'' and ''total receipts.'' It lacks the lofty sentiments of the Bill of Rights; its serviceable, bottom-line prose pales next to the political poetry of the Founding Fathers.

In a sense, the 34 dissenting senators were the true ''conservatives.'' They were too wary of change to take bold action to address a pernicious problem: a soaring national debt that threatens the nation's long-term economic stability. Hiding behind a defense of the Social Security trust fund was good politics. Some were sincerely concerned; others should have argued their true feelings -- that balanced budgets are simply not necessary -- and showcased some economists who agree.

2. Now it's time to focus on the current budget. Nearly everyone in both parties has signed on publicly in favor of reducing the deficit. The failure of the budget amendment should not be allowed to become an excuse for abandoning the task. Congress can avoid the painful work of cutting this year's budget no longer. Members vehemently disagree on where to cut; the public itself is unsure which cuts are prudent and which are unduly harsh. It's time for everyone to pay attention, roll up their sleeves, and start sorting it out.

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