Budget Amendment Languishes
By Eric Pianin
When Congress gave final approval last week to the GOP-White House plan to eliminate the deficit by 2002, it may also have permanently derailed a decades-old drive for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
For years conservatives argued it would take a constitutional amendment to force Congress and the White House to balance the federal budget a task last achieved in fiscal 1969, with legislation adopted during the waning days of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration.
But the deficit has steadily declined in recent years, and Congress and the administration now are committed to a five-year plan to eliminate the deficit lending credence to the argument that the budget can be balanced without tampering with the Constitution.
"I don't want to say the amendment is moot, but I don't see any momentum for it," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a longtime advocate of the constitutional amendment, said last week.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), a onetime amendment supporter who has opposed it in recent years, last week declared the issue dead for the foreseeable future. "I think it's going to be very hard for [proponents] to make the case that we need a constitutional amendment" in the wake of the budget agreement and the substantial progress toward reducing the deficit, he said.
The deficit, which raged throughout the 1980s and reached a high of $290 billion in 1992, has declined substantially in each of the past four years and is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to decline again this year, to $67 billion.
While Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush championed the balanced budget amendment and House Republicans made it a centerpiece of their "Contract With America," President Clinton has staunchly opposed the measure.
Republicans pushed the amendment through the House in early 1995, shortly after the GOP takeover of Congress, but the White House and Democratic leaders have blocked Senate passage four times in the past 3 1/2 years. Each time, amendment proponents have come tantalizingly close, twice failing by a single vote to gain the necessary two-thirds majority.
Last March, the drive for the amendment collapsed after freshmen Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) announced their opposition, despite their repeated support for the measure when they served in the House. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), furious over the reversals, denounced the two Democrats on the floor as dishonest and deceptive.
The Republican National Committee also tried to turn up the heat by running radio ads in South Dakota and New Jersey, accusing both new senators of breaking their word. But Johnson and Torricelli who were lobbied intensely by the White House and Daschle said they changed their minds after concluding the amendment would provide inadequate safeguards for the Social Security trust fund and because it would straitjacket the government in dealing with economic and national security crises.
The Democrats appear to have been so effective in persuading voters that passage of the amendment could jeopardize Social Security and Medicare that the GOP is wary of bringing the issue up again.
Torricelli said last week, after the final votes on the budget, that he felt "personally vindicated" for having argued that Congress and the White House could attain their goals without resorting to a constitutional amendment. "We've gotten the best of both worlds," he said. "We've achieved both a balanced budget and preserved the Constitution without alterations."
Although amendment proponents concede that passage of the balanced budget plan has taken some of the wind out of their sails, many predict that the drive for the amendment will be revived once people see that the new budget will not solve the deficit problem.
Critics of the GOP-White House plan charge it is premised on overly optimistic economic assumptions and that the vast majority of tough spending cuts and policy changes have been put off until the plan's last two years.
"I don't think anyone thinks that budget will get us to balance as it stands," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), another key supporter of a balanced budget amendment. "I think there will be even more impetus for a constitutional amendment as these rosy assumptions fail to materialize."
The National Taxpayers Union, which has fueled the balanced budget amendment campaign for decades, has vowed to fight on. Noting that previous major plans to eliminate the deficit such as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the late 1980s have failed, the National Taxpayers Union contends there is no reason to assume the latest balanced budget legislation will work any better.
"I think the momentum for the balanced budget amendment will still be there," said Peter J. Sepp, the taxpayers union's press secretary. "Many members see the balanced budget amendment as the best way to assure that the budget not only is balanced by 2002 but that it stays balanced beyond then."
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