The Equal Rights Amendment isn't the only change in the Constitution trying to wriggle its way through the ratification process. There is another one. This amendment would make it unconstitutional for Congress to run a budget deficit.
This no-deficit-spending amendment, the original idea for which is credited to Maryland Democratic State Sen. James Clark, has now been approved by the legislatures of 19 states. They're in the South and West for the most part, but the National Taxpayers Union, which is vigorously pushing this amendment, says that states like Pennsylvania and Indiana also have signed up.
Since the amendment hasn't passed the federal legislature (hearings haven't even been held on it), the only way the states can get it passed, unless Congress changes its mind, is to call a Constitutional Convention. To do that requires a demand for one by two-thirds (34) of the states, and that may be forthcoming. The anti-deficit-spending winds are blowing so that we may have our first Con-Con since George Washington's. In fact, if a few more states pass the resolution asking for one, the mere exitement of invoking this never-before-used section of our Constitution probably will stampede the others into supporting the idea.
Only good can come from a Constitutional Convention called to consider a no-deficit-spending amendment. The debates, arguments and controversies, much of which is sure to be televised, should stimulate millions of us to learn things about fiscal and monetary policy and hone our ignorant passions into informed convictions.
There are several proposed wordings for this amendment, but all of them recognize that deficit spending must be permitted in time of war and provision made for lifting the prohibition during times of national emergency. With defense and foreign policies in such hands as those of Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), you can be sure that when it comes to a choice between forgoing a new weapon, actually taxing the populace for the cost, or going into deficit, we will continue to pile up deficits.
As a practical matter it would be next to impossible to write an amendment of this sort that politicians of only middling ingenuity couldn't get around. In fact, even now the publicized - i.e., the official gap between what's taken in in taxes and what's spent - isn't the only deficit piled up by the federal government, but only the most visible one. Unseen billions of debt are contracted by the government in a less-publicized category called in the off-budget deficit.
Moreover, in New York State, whose constitution has provisions designed to make deficits very difficult, Nelson Rockefeller, during his four terms as governor, showed that a determined man, with bankruptcy and ruin on his mind, can defeat the letter and spirit of any law. Through strange leasing arrangements, weird special-purpose commissions and the issance of voodoo instruments of debt, the Rock got around all the legal impediments placed in the way of politicians bent on destroying the full faith and credit of the hard-working people of the state of New York. In addition the state of New York. In addition essary to make a deficit look like something else were so successful, there is doubt in some quarters that anybody knows how much the real debt is.
So the danger exists that an amendment like this won't prevent deficit spending but merely distort the book-keeping to such an extent that it will make chaos out of our public finances.
More to the point might be an amendment that requires the government to cover any deficits it may contract by borrowing instead of printing money. Deficits themselves are not per se inflationary. They are an occasion for inflation if the government decides to put more and more money in circulation to cover them.
If the government can't print money to cover its debts, it must borrow. From whom? From us, and if we'd rather spend our money on something else, then the government must kick up the interest rates on its borrowing until they are so attractive we'll forgo the new Chevy for the savings bond paying 13 per cent per year.
Preventing the government from printing money to pay for deficits won't solve our problems. It will make our choices easier to see, however. It will get us away from kidding ourselves into thinking we can have both the new Chevy and the government expenditures. It can't make smart choices for us but it can force us to make choices within our means.
The no-deficit amendment is near being a fiscal version of the Volstead Act, the prohibition amendment. This one, like its predecessor, would be a noble experiment, but in the last analysis if seeks to enact a rule of law as a substitute for the prudence and wisdom statesmen lack.