THE PRESIDENT suggested in his speech Wednesday night that the Iran-contra affair has been allowed too long to divert attention from real problems facing the country. "I also want to talk about getting on with things because the people's business is waiting," he said. But on the most important piece of business, the paralyzing deficit, he then proposed a fresh diversion of his own.

His nonoffer offer was a reiteration of rejected past positions dressed up to sound like a major concession. If Congress would agree to vote this year on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, he would agree "to negotiate on every spending item in the budget."

The president has used the balanced-budget amendment as drapery for his record budget deficits for most of two terms. It is the longest running non sequitur in town. "Only the Constitution can compel responsibility," he said again Wednesday night. But that is not so. A reasonable budget is within easy reach, but the president won't reach for it. Defense spending has been restored in his administration -- as it needed to be -- while domestic spending has been cut about as much as either party has the will to cut it. Taxes were also cut in what is probably the president's favorite accomplishment. Now taxes are too low to support the government, yet the president won't hear of raising them. It continues to be only the spending side of the budget on which he is willing to negotiate.

That policy dispute is the source of the budget crisis. The president prefers to blame the ornate congressional budget process. But as tempting a target as it is, the budget process is not the problem. Nor, in the present context of divided government, would the amended process that the president supports be a solution. The constitutional amendment would not forbid unbalanced budgets; it would merely require more than majority votes to enact them. Minorities could hold the budget up -- which is precisely what is happening now. The president cannot impose his will on the Democratic Congress, but he retains the veto, and his supporters in the Senate have the filibuster. So neither do the Democrats seem to have the votes -- or if the votes, the courage -- to impose their will on him.

The constitutional amendment is a bad idea that, in simplistically restricting future governments, would do enormous harm for little good. But for now, coming from a president who ran up $1 trillion in national debt in just six years, it is only a distraction, a bauble.