THERE IS an idea in the air that, however awful or meaningless it may be when considered on its merits, the constitutional amendment for a balanced budget is good politics. This notion proceeds almost entirely from the results of public opinion polls. All the pollsters do agree that overwhelming majorities of Americans say they favor the amendment to balance the budget. But before legislators take these responses as commands to act, they should consider exactly what the polls mean.
Like others, we have advanced, from time to time, the argument that legislators should be swayed by a majority in the polls. Certainly consistent public favor for a proposal should be accorded some respect. But the fact is that not all majorities are of equal strength. Some issues are of great importance to voters, while others are abstract, airy and far removed from their lives.
Voters have thought long and hard about some issues; to others they have given only subliminal attention. Ask them if they want Social Security benefits cut 10 percent, and the majority opposing it will then be meaningful--as, we think, the Reagan administration has discovered. Ask them if they favor changes in the city council's procedural rules, and the answer means very little. On issues that they don't care much about, that they've thought little about and that seem to have little effect on their lives, voters' opinions are not deeply held and are easily changed.
The constitutional amendment to balance the budget is an issue that is, for voters, both abstract and distant. Balancing the budget is an idea of some appeal, a symbol that government is operating in an orderly and disciplined manner. All other things being equal, voters would like to see the budget balanced.
But this is not a proposal that seems, at first glance, likely to affect a voter's life directly, and if a balanced budget is required, and if it causes some pain--or if, when voters think harder about it, they believe that it could cause some pain--then the majorities that support the amendment today could melt away. Similar things happen all the time on referenda and on procedural issues. The most notable instances, in our view, involved the evaporation of the majorities (majorities by which we set too great a store) that consistently registered in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment when state equal rights amendments were defeated in referenda in states like New York and Iowa.
Democrats are already calling the balanced budget measure the "cut Social Security" amendment, which is not so far off the mark. The voters have made it pretty clear they don't want major programs cut much more than they already have been; if that were not true, you can bet that the Reagan administration would have proposed more cuts than it has. So when the voters see that the amendment could require such cuts, they may very well lose their enthusiasm for it.
We suspect that the political process will end up rewarding those officeholders and candidates who stand up and shout that this particular emperor has no clothes. Most of those in Congress who are backing this amendment know it is a political cheap shot, and we think it won't be long before most voters understand that too. Politicians can peddle herpetological emollient only so long before the voters discover that it's really snake oil.