THERE IS SO much impassioned support for the balanced budget amendment--fiery rhetoric in Congress, a presidentially led rally on the Capitol steps--that you have to assume both the president and Congress really wish that such a constitutional mandate were already in force. (Surely they wouldn't wish something on their successors that they're not willing to live with themselves?) The question, then, is this: what would happen if Congress were to pass the amendment, and 38 state legislatures, eager to support this noble cause, rushed into special session and ratified it?
Well, look out. Closing the deficit would require cutting spending--or raising revenue--by at least $260 billion over the next three years, and possibly much more. This would be in addition to the $380 billion in deficit reduction measures that Congress is already painfully trying to enact just to get the deficit headed downward. Let's look at some of the choices Congress would have to make.
The easiest part of the budget to cut is usually the so-called "discretionary" domestic programs. These are mostly grants-in-aid to states for things such as pollution control, education, health and urban development. But these programs recently took huge cuts and are slated for $35 billion in further reductions over the next three years. In any case, the proposed constitutional amendment prohibits placing new fiscal burdens on states, so it's not clear that it would allow even the cuts in these programs that are already planned.
Another way to save the needed money is called "going after the entitlements." These are programs that more or less assure certain people, such as the poor or aged, of certain benefits. The trouble is that the programs that most people wouldn't mind cutting --welfare and food stamps--are small items in the budget, and they are already due for very big cuts. 2 That still leaves the big pension programs--Social Security, Medicare and military and civil service pensions. But Congress already plans politically risky curbs on all of these except Social Security. Even if Congress were to work up the courage to cut Social Security benefits, you'd have to cut benefits almost in half to get the needed savings. Not only is this out of the question, but, since Social Security is funded by an earmarked payroll tax, the funds shouldn't be used to cover other programs anyway.
That leaves defense. Even with the cutbacks voted in the budget resolution, it's worth noting that planned increases in defense spending will absorb all of the growth in general revenues over the next few years--and then some. This is why the deficit is so big even with cuts in other programs. But Congress has been busy in recent weeks voting for every big-ticket item the Pentagon wants so that there is little reason to expect it would be willing or able to make hard choices in this area.
As for raising taxes, Finance Committee Chairman Robert Dole has found little enthusiasm--and only a bare margin of Republican support--even for going after tax cheats.
This is why there is a day-dreamish quality about the current enthusiasm for a balanced budget amendment--a childish wish by Congress that if it were just forced by some outside power to do "what's right," all the real and urgent difficulties would fade away. That's not only foolish; it also distracts attention from the practical efforts being made by congressional leaders to get the deficit under control--efforts that are far more deserving of administration and congressional support than the pious and fatuous hopes embodied in the balanced budget amendment.