WHATEVER HAPPENED to the Balanced Budget Amendment? In the week before adjournment, a House Judiciary subcommittee got to work marking up the amendment the administration proposed. The changes it is making are unquestionably an improvement. They include:
Requiring the president to submit, as well as requiring the Congress to adopt, a balanced budget. Why should a president be allowed to submit a budget with all sorts of expensive goodies that Congress, as it balances the budget, would have to reject?
Requiring that "revenues" rather than "receipts" be used to measure whether the budget is balanced. This is just good budgeting practice.
5 Substituting "fiscal period as established by Congress" for "fiscal year." In 1976, we changed fiscal years and left one three-month period in limbo; without this change, a spending-minded Congress might stuff a big deficit into a small period. Or the Reagan amendment could be read as prohibiting any change in fiscal year altogether -- an unintended and silly result.
5 Requiring that a congressional decision to allow an unbalanced budget by a 60 percent vote be taken by a recorded roll call. Otherwise, a pro-spending speaker with a heavy gavel might be able to push through an unbalanced budget by voice vote and by refusing to recognize objections or a motion for a roll call.
Three of these changes were sponsored by Rep. William Hughes (D-N.J.) and one by Rep. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), both fiscal conservatives within their parties. They improve what must be recognized now as a defective draft. They decrease the chances that any amendment can be passed this year, since even if the House Judiciary product were reported to the floor and received a two-thirds vote--by no means a certainty--it would have to be accepted in toto by the Senate or else go to conference committee; and there almost certainly would not be time to pass a conference committee compromise.
Some will charge that House Judiciary members are gutting the amendment. We see it differently: they are illustrating that the amendment sent to Congress was a shoddy product--a political cheap shot--which should not have passed the Senate and should not, in its original form, be sent to the floor of the House. To the argument that the amendment must be passed immediately, even if it is defective, we say, what's the hurry? No one claims it can become effective until 1985 anyway. We don't think it's possible to draft a constitutional amendment that can put us on automatic pilot and guarantee us a balanced budget forever, but it is clear that the House Judiciary product comes closer than the Reagan or Senate versions.