Keeping Balance

Whether President Clinton likes it or not, the balanced- budget amendment will be back on the nation's agenda when the new Congress convenes in January.

The latest word from the administration is that Mr. Clinton doesn't like it any more than he did a year ago when his opposition helped rally the votes needed to narrowly defeat the amendment in the Senate.

But this is still a top item on the GOP agenda, and proponents can count on a couple of more votes in the Senate (they only failed by one last year). But before a balanced federal budget is constitutionally mandated, the nation will get a loud replay of the arguments for and against - and well it should. This measure is far from simple in its implications; it represents a turning point in American governance.

Those who see the turning point as positive uphold the amendment as the only way to ensure fiscal responsibility in Washington. Without the requirement enshrined in basic law, they argue, Republicans and Democrats will continue to dance around true fiscal discipline, protecting their favorite programs and never making the hard choices needed to protect the country's economic future and keep government from absorbing too big a chunk of our financial resources.

Those who see it as a turn toward disaster point to the need to preserve fiscal flexibility in order to respond to unforeseen emergencies, most notably recessions. At such times federal income droops and demands on federal programs like unemployment insurance soar. Other critics argue that, even without emergencies, the mere presence of a constitutional amendment won't make it any easier for politicians to trim where needed. With a violation of the Constitution at stake, moreover, disagreements could spill into the courts, gumming things up worse than ever.

There are some middle roads. Any budget amendment should allow relatively easy waiver of its requirement to balance revenue and spending as times of economic stress demand. A simple majority, not a "super" three-fifths majority, is all that should be required to accomplish this. The same goes for votes to raise taxes - an option that has to be kept reasonably at hand, not put virtually off limits as some balanced-budget zealots would like.

Another road to balance is the one the administration and Congress have already ventured down: tough political bargaining to arrive at the package of cuts needed for rough equilibrium of income and outflow. Both the GOP leaders and Clinton have fixed on the target date of 2002. Both now have to get down to the difficult job of reshaping programs, from Medicare to weapons procurement. That's the main show, balanced budget amendment or not.

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