The constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget now has 60 sponsors in the Senate. That makes it very likely to be passed when it comes to the floor, perhaps this week. The immediate motive here is wretchedly trivial--to provide a little shelter for a conservative Senate as it raises the federal debt limit. Because the federal budget deficit is rising under Mr. Reagan, most of those 60 senators are feeling highly vulnerable on the subject of debt and, before lifting the limit, they want an opportunity to demonstrate their allegiance to fiscal orthodoxy. It is an absurd reason for tampering with the Constitution.
By enforcing the rule of a balanced budget, this amendment would leave no discretion whatever to a president and Congress to combat recessions. Theoretically, the amendment would allow a deficit by a three-fifths vote in each house of Congress. In reality, governments are always slow to acknowledge economic trouble ahead, and it is utterly unlikely that Congress could react sufficiently quickly, or unanimously, to avert real damage. Under the iron commandment of continuous balance, a recession like the present one would quickly turn into a true depression on a scale that this country has not seen since the 1930s.
The senators who support this amendment speak for a part of America that has been prosperous so long that it takes prosperity for granted, and no longer remembers the fearful cost that a country pays for obscurantist policy. When private demand declines, as it periodically does, the process quickly becomes self-perpetuating unless it is offset by public demand--that is, deficit spending by the government. While it is currently fashionable to deride Keynesian doctrine, Mr. Keynes' answer to recession was right 45 years ago, is right today and will continue to be right in the future. One sincere testimonial to it comes from the Reagan administration, which is relying on it to end the present recession and is explicitly counting on next month's tax cut-- and the larger deficits that it will cause--to pull the country back into a pattern of faster growth.
Undoubtedly it would be desirable to run the federal budget fairly close to balance over a period of years, taking the better times and the worse ones together. But to declare that the budget must necessarily balance every year, good or bad, unless the country is actually at war, is to invite the scarifying spirals of the 1930s and the 1890s. It is grotesque for senators and a president who cannot get their current deficit under $100 billion to support, piously, constitutional language putting it at zero. Conservatives in particular might note that there are only two ways to do it quickly--a tremendous reduction in Mr. Reagan's defense plans or a tremendous increase in taxes. Senators sponsoring this amendment might usefully be asked which alternative they support.
One sturdy Republican, Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, describes this amendment correctly when he terms it the instrument of "sluggards and cowards," incapable of the hard thinking and the hard votes that orderly budgets require.