Most members of Congress who have proposed a balanced federal budget have no specific idea about how to achieve that goal, a Washington Post survey shows.
"A constitutional amendment (to balance the budget) couldn't be passed for a year or so," said Rep. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), in a comment echoed time and again in the survey. "So I don't have to face how to do it this fall. I've still got a year before I've got worry about that."
The survey, covering all 57 House members and 11 senators who have proposed legislation or a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, shows that most of those sponsoring balanced-budget bills have at the same time introduced numerous spending and tax-cutting bills that would seem likely to exacerbate the budget deficit if enacted.
Rep. Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.), for example, introduced bills to build a new veterans' clinic in his district, to create a federally funded "solar energy development bank," and to establish a new category of income tax credit on the same day he proposed his balanced-budget bill.
The champion in this regard seems to be Rep. Bill Chappell (D-Fla.), who describes himself as a "fiscal conservative" and who has introduced more than a dozen bills that would seem to involve higher federal spending.
Chappell has proposed, among other things, building a new veternas' hospital for his district, increasing veterans' and Social Secutiry benefits, increasing federal payments for shore restoration projects, and increasing the government's tort liability.
He also has introduced legislation creating a new income tax exemption for certain workers.
"There's no conflict with my balanced-budget bill," Chappell said, "There's more to balancing the budget than any specific bills. I have consistently taken out after fraud in our food stamp and welfare programs. That would save more than my bills would cost."
If necessary, Chappell said, he would support a tax increase to pay for his legislation. In saying that, he reflected a common view among balanced-budget advocates in Congress.
To the extent the sponsors of balanced-budget bills have thought about the mechanics of eliminating the federal deficit, they overwhelmingly lean toward increasing tax revenues, rather than decreasing federal spending to bring the budget into balance.
Not one legislator surveyed proposed cutting federal spending below the roughly $530 billion that will be obligated this fiscal year. Instead, they seem to have in mind a moderate annual increase in spending, offset by a steeper increase in tax revenues.
"I think you could do it without cutting a single federal program," said Rep. Richard C. White (D-Tex.), in a typical comment. "With just the natural growth in tax collections, we could balance the budget and still have some increase in spending year to year."
White, like most of those surveyed, based his view on a hope of increased growth in the economy, which he said would generate increased revenues.
In case of an economic slowdown or recession - a possibility many economists have predicted for this fall - White said he would defer the balanced-budget goal rather than cut spending to achieve it. This view, too, was shared by a large majority of the balanced-budget advocates.
For the most part, however, the sponsors said they had not thought much about the specifics of a balanced budget when they introduced their bills.
Grassley said this was strategic. "I'm going to avoid getting involved in suggesting how to cut the budget," he said. "If you start proposing cuts, our detractors will throw that at us to divide our camp."
Many sponsors said it would be premature to consider how to balance the budget before the requirement was imposed. "Speculation as to which programs might be cut . . . prior to the time we have made any budget-balancing commitment at all would be fruitless," said Rep. John Slack (D-W. Va.), expressing a common view.
Rep. Ken Kramer (R-Colo.), a freshman, said it would be "presumptuous . . . with just under three months of experience in the House, to provide a complete laundry list of where cuts should be made."
Inexperience did not stop Kramer, however, from proposing a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution two weeks after he was sworn in.
Several of those surveyed said they did not consider balancing the budget a particularly difficult task. It is "an easily achievable goal," said Rep. Phil Gramm (D-Tex.), as long as tax revenues continue to increase as rapidly as they did last year.
Similiarly, Rep. Beverly Byron (D-Md.) said an "orderly transition" from the $37 billion deficit projected for the current fiscal year to a zero deficit could be achieve over three years through "general and gradual budget trims and natural program attrition." She did not elaborate.
Of the 68 members surveyed, eight offered relatively systematic proposals for spending cuts and tax increases that would bring the budget into balance. A dozen listed general program areas where they would be willing to reduce spending if necessary to balance the budget.
Only one, Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.), said that he had gone through the entire federal budget to measure the implications of a balanced-budget requirement.
"It was a frustrating but worthy exercise," Crane says. "It took us about six months, but once you've gone through that drill, you get a better feeling for what it's like to have to set the priorities."
As a result of his study, Crane decided that a consitutional balanced-budget requirement would be unworkable. Instead, He has proposed a federal spending limit based on the annual growth in personal income.