THE HOUSE is scheduled to vote next week on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The proposal, like others of its kind, wouldn't ban unbalanced budgets, just make them harder to enact. It's still a bad idea, another effort to substitute a procedural fix for political will. A majority of members is cosponsoring the measure, but the House should deny it the two-thirds it requires to pass.
The amendment in its current form sets up a new budget process. The president and Congress would have to agree each year on an estimate of receipts for the fiscal year ahead. The forecast would be worked out through the normal legislative process: majority votes in both houses subject to presidential veto requiring two-thirds votes in both houses to override. Then three-fifths votes of the membership, not just the members voting, in both houses would be required to overspend the estimated revenues. As an extra check on the playfulness of future Congresses, similar three-fifths votes would be required to raise the public debt. Any tax increase would also need majorities of the members of both houses. All provisions would be waived for any year in which there was a declaration of war.
Attempts are made to define some of the terms in the amendment. The commendable goal is to stamp out false-front accountancy of the sort that the current procedural fix, Gramm-Rudman, has produced. Lots of luck. But beyond the likelihood of evasion, it is also wrong to try to lock a particular fiscal policy into the Constitution, even a policy so venerated yet difficult of attainment as a balanced budget. We are among those who think just now that the government should strive for surplus. But balance and/or surplus are not always the right prescriptions. It is equally easy to imagine situations in which deficit financing would be better for the economy or preferable to the spending cuts that a deck stacked in favor of balance would require.
Some of the loudest proponents of a balanced budget amendment in recent years have recognized at least half this truth. They have never proposed a balanced budget -- not Ronald Reagan, not George Bush, not Congress either, in its annual budget resolutions. Every one of them has busily practiced what, in supporting constitutional amendments, they have simultaneously pretended to deplore. The restraints they would impose on their successors are at least as much political show as a sign of reform.
The place to practice reform is at the budget summit. The way to make up for the excesses of the last 10 years is not to hobble future governments by tinkering with the Constitution, but to enact the tax increases and spending cuts necessary to reduce the deficit. An amendment continues to circle the problem; these would solve it.