THE BUDGET BALANCERS in Congress voted in 1974 for budget reforms that were supposed to make deficits less inviting. In 1976, the Democrats elected a president committed to balancing the budget. In 1980, the Republicans elected a president who was most emphatically and determinedly committed to balancing the budget. And now the deficit is not only very large but, for the first time, likely to get steadily larger even if the economy recovers from the present recession. The current campaign for a constitutional amendment to force a balanced budget is running on a fuel that is one-third frustration, one-third despair and one- third a sharp sense of having been betrayed by the Reagan administration. It's a dangerous and explosive mess. But it is the predictable result of a long succession of broken promises.
A constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget is, of course, a fundamentally and irreparably flawed idea. It will produce precisely the opposite of its authors' intentions--less congressional control over spending, less relationship to reality. Budgets will be formally balanced, but there is no constitutional amendment that can prevent a president from using fake numbers, like the fake numbers in President Reagan's budget for the current year. The amendments now before Congress would not curtail federal lending and borrowing. Congress needs to recall the experience of state governments operating under similar restrictions. There were states in which every lamp pole and fire plug was built under a separate bond authority. The effect was not to hold down public spending but to drive up public interest costs, and to skew spending toward the physical improvements that bond-holders prefer, like buildings and roads, at the expense of the social programs.
Amid that welter of fiscal fakery and evasion, budget control would disintegrate altogether. The neatly balanced accounts would become a kind of shell, the reality being a maze of special funds tucked away all over Washington for earmarked money, and loan guarantees, and spending counted as negative revenue.
The amendment now under debate attempts to discourage automatic tax increases through inflation and bracket creep. That only increases the incentive to circumvention, in the absence of a durable political consensus in favor of balance.
And there you come to the central point. The supporters of the amendment see it as a desperate attempt to enforce majority rule on the innumerable special interests that tenaciously defend the separate pieces of the budget. It's more accurate to say that, in the period of rather weak national leadership that began during the Vietnam War, politics has inclined toward expanding benefits and cutting taxes without ever explaining the consequences candidly and fully to the country. As long as that pattern persists, legal devices aren't going to end deficits.
If a president and Congress together have a genuine will to balance the budget, a constitutional amendment won't be needed. Without that will, a constitutional amendment cannot do it.