Eleven Democratic senators who are running for reelection this year voted for the balanced budget amendment last week. We ask them just how they would wipe out the federal deficit, assuming the amendment they embraced becomes part of the Constitution. Some of them have answers, some of them don't.
Last Wednesday, 22 Democratic senators supported Senate approval of a new amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment would require either a balanced federal budget, or the approval of a three- fifths majority in both houses of Congress for any deficit. The Democratic Party had formally opposed the amendment, but these Democratic votes put it over the top in the Senate.
Eleven of those Democrats are running for reelection this year. We asked each of them to explain how he would raise taxes or cut spending to achieve the goal of a balanced budget by 1985, the first year the amendment could conceivably go into effect. (It will only become law if ratified by 38 state legislatues.) Below we print their answers.
Howard W.Cannon (Nev.) declined to say how he would balance the budget. "Cannon is not able to provide any figures at this time," said his press secretary, Michael R. Vernetti.
Lawton Chiles (Fla.) promises to examine all forms of federal spending. Said his spokesman, Jack W. Pridgen: "He (Chiles) doesn't think, 'By voting for the balanced budget I've got to draw up a laundry list of programs, agency by agency, and say what should be cut out...'
"Neither defense nor entitlements is sacrosanct; nothing is immune...You keep mentioning specifics, and I'm telling you that the senator will look at whatever the federal government spends money on."
Quentin N. Burdick (N. Dak.) has a plan he says would produce a balanced budget. According to his press secretary, Ann G. Humphrey, Burdick would make deep cuts in foreign aid, would apply "tighter controls over the Pentagon budget, especially cost overruns," and would close tax loopholes including the safe-harbor leasing provisions passed last year. He would postpone the third year of the tax cut. Would all this add up to balanced receipts and expenditures? "Really, without going into detailed programs I can't say much more," replied Humphrey.
Dennis DeConcini (Ariz.) offered a plan to cut deficits by $100 billion over the period 1983-85 which includes cuts in many popular programs, including urban mass transit and highways, Medicaid, food stamps, revenue sharing and agricultural research. However, on current estimates, this would not be even half enough to balance the budget. Said DeConcini's press secretary, Robert W. Maynes: "It's exceedingly important for people to understand that this (constitutional amendment) does not guarantee a balanced budget. What it tries to do is reduce the bias (toward) spending deficit dollars."
John Melcher (Mont.) said: "The amendment requires that when it's not possible to have a balanced budget, that there be a 60 percent vote in the House and Senate to establish what level of spending there will be. That's the heart of the amendment, because with a $140 billion deficit facing us next year you have to consider, what if we're still that far apart when this goes into effect?"
"It would be impossible today" to balance the budget, Melcher said.
William Proxmire (Wisc.) said "there is not a program in government that could not stand belt tightening."
Proxmire offers a plan of tax increases and cuts in spending programs including food stamps and student loans, but the total savings he proposes would not balance the budget. When this was pointed out to his administrative assistant, Ronald L. Tammen, Tammen said, "You'll have to ask the senator that."
James R. Sasser (Tenn.) offered a set of tax increases and improved debt collection moves -- but not spending cuts -- that would raise considerable revenue, though not enough to balance a 1985 budget. "I don't think Sasser proposes to come up by himself with a plan to come up with all the cutbacks or revenue increases" needed to balance the budget, said his spokesman, Douglas K. Hall.
John C. Stennis (Miss.) was out of town, as was his press secretary. Another aide, James T. Kendall, said, "when you ask specifics, I can't help you. If you ask about particulars -- food stamps, Medicare and so on, I have no comment."
Edward Zorinsky (Neb.) was called half a dozen times by a reporter who said he was seeking information on how Zorinsky would balance the budget. Zorinsky's press secretary told the reporter that the senator personally should answer these questions. The senator never called back.
Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.) has already voted for a plan to balance the 1985 budget, said his spokesman Jack DeVore, so his position is on record.
However, the plan Bentsen supported -- originally proposed by Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) -- assumed much smaller deficits than are now in prospect. It called for across-the-board cuts in all major spending programs, and some revenue increases that might wipe out half the 1985 deficits now foreseen. Bentsen's office declined to explain what cuts or tax increases he would favor to make up the difference.
Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and his spokesman were both out of town, and did not return a reporter's calls. Byrd said after voting for the amendment that objections others had expressed to it "trouble me greatly," but said he had concluded that" a question of this magnitude" should be put "directly to the people" by referring it to the state legislatures.