God, preparing condign punishment for hot air emitted in support of humbug, turned the temperature up to 90 the day the president addressed a rally for a constitutional amendment to require balanced budgets. The rally to make government--that questing beast --obedient to "the people" was for people with tickets. A ticket to a rally for an amendment to "require" balanced budgets calls to mind the invitation a Lady Colfax issued, after the First World War, to a luncheon to "meet the mother of the Unknown Warrior."
But members of the sainted public could get tickets. Red tickets were for employees of the Republican National Committee and high-level employees of the--if you'll pardon the expression --government. They got to sit smack in front of the president. Blue tickets allowed lesser government employees to sit farther back from Himself. White tickets, handed out on the streets, put plain people, to whose salvation the rally was dedicated, at the rear.
Behind the president, stewing like prunes in their juices, were congresspersons and senators, some of whom sincerely support the amendment for which they were rallying. Legislators who did not feel ill-used obviously were properly used as applauding props.
Washington's air this season is thick with humidity and hoaxes, such as nuclear "freezes" that won't freeze anything, and "flat rate" tax programs without flat rates. So what is one more hoax among friends? This hoax--this trivialization of the Constitution--is, simultaneously, a confession of political incompetence and an assertion of intellectual mastery--mastery not noticeable in the results of recent economic policies.
At precisely the moment when economists are especially bewildered by the inability of their theories to encompass events, politicians, running for cover from the electoral consequences of their activities, are proposing to constitutionalize an economic doctrine. They would graft something evanescent onto something fundamental.
Under the amendment, Congress would be required to adopt, prior to each fiscal year, a statement of receipts and outlays, the latter not to exceed the former. But such economic numbers are estimates made of warm taffy, all gooey and stretchable.
Neither clairvoyance nor candor can be counted on in Congress or the Office of Management and Budget. So who will enforce what on whom if--when-- the numbers are significantly wrong? Will the president control outlays by impounding appropriated funds? Will courts superintend the appropriations process?
If the latter, will every taxpayer have standing to sue? No one can know until courts speak. And they will speak, because the amendment does not stipulate that controversies under it are not reviewable by courts. Were that stipulation made, the amendment would become a recipe for paralysis and lawlessness.
The amendment says that total receipts in any fiscal year may not be set to increase at a rate faster than the rate of increase of national income in the previous calendar year. The implication of this is that whatever else the government has recently got wrong, the current ratio of federal spending to national income is just about right.
But, then, the amendment would allow Congress to change this ratio by a simple majority vote. And by a three- fifths vote, Congress could authorize a deficit--which is what Congress has been doing for generations. So, to enable current incumbents to strike a pose, some incumbents want to clutter the Constitution with an amendment that might be, in practice, 98 percent loophole. It would be that, unless the political culture and congressional mores changed substantially, in which case the amendment would be beside the point.
The amendment is long, but should be longer. It depends on Congress' making precise projections, so it should contain 1,000 more clauses, four of which are:
Floods, hurricanes and other acts of God that wish to occur during the next fiscal year must register with OMB six months before the fiscal year begins, so Congress can know that relief-spending shall occur.
Agricultural commodities covered by price supports must inform the Agriculture Department if they are planning to materialize in inconvenient quantities in the next fiscal year.
Anyone planning to need unemployment compensation in the coming fiscal year must notify the Labor Department.
Before causing crises, tiresome foreigners must notify the U.S. Defense Department of any effects their crises will have on U.S. defense spending.
And . . . oh, yes: I love lobster, and own elm trees. Could Congress please require lobsters to grow on elm trees?
Sorry; I digress. It must be the heat.