On Sept. 29, 1981, the Senate in a landmark action raised the nation's debt ceiling to more than $1 trillion. Warnings that government must live within its means or face economic calamity punctuated debate preceding the vote. Yet, it has taken the government only four years to reach the $2 trillion mark; four years to amass as much debt as we accumulated in our first 200 years.

But, while we sanctimoniously decry deficits and promise action, the political process has clearly failed to address the problem. This $2 trillion burden represents an indebtedness of nearly $10,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Financing this obligation will cost approximately $200 billion in fiscal 1986 and is increasing at the rate of $20 billion annually. Gross interest on the national debt now consumes more than one out of every two dollars collected in individual income taxes.

While there is agreement on the need for drastic action against the deficit, the budget process has become so complicated it is almost impossible to arrive at a final decision or hold anyone accountable for the policy outcomes. The result is fiscal gridlock. The major steps needed to bring the deficit under control are never accomplished. Instead, Congress and the administration confine themselves to a series of nickel- and-dime measures, some fudging of the numbers and a promise to do better next year.

It is this history that led Sens. Phil Gramm, Ernest Hollings and me to forge an emergency five-year proposal aimed at establishing an enforceable process to ensure progress toward a balanced budget. Despite the frantic protestations of opponents who apparently prefer the status quo, it does so without altering the fiscal priorities set by Congress or the balanc of power between the legislative and executive branches.

The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings amendment simply sets mandatory maximum amounts for the federal deficit and reduces them by some $36 billion annually. The proposal requires the president to submit budgets with deficits within the statutory targets and Congress to remain within those ceilings as it acts on measfecting the federal budget. Most important, it creates an enforcement mechanism that will automatically institute the budget cuts needed to achieve the prescribed targets.

Those who maintain that the measure shifts power from the legislative to the executive branch have failed to read the amendment, have not listened to the Senate debate and have not taken into account the amendment by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) underscoring our intent to maintain the balance of power. The automatic enforcement mechanism included in the bill does not give the president one iota of new power. The president's role in issuing the order is purely ministerial. The content of the order and the programs to be affected are spelled out in the amendment and in the reports from the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office that are mandated by the amendment. The remainder of the bill touches on the budget proc presidential power by specifying what deficit target the president has to meet in his budget request.

It has also been suggested that technical or clarifying amendments to the proposal have drastically altered the plan from one day to the next. This is nothing more than a smoke screen to disguise philosophical or political opposition.

New defense spending in a given year is covered by the automatic enforcement mechanism of the amendment. While as a practical matter, certain outlays resulting from prior year budget authority cannot be reduced because of contractual obligations, that is also true on the domestic she budget. Furthermore, it is ironic that while the Gramm- Rudman-Hollings amendment is being assailed for exempting defense contracts, the so-called Democratic leadership amendment (offered on the Senate floor late Tuesday night) specifically exempts defense contracts and even grants the president the discretion to exempt contract-related spending on the grounds that including such would be "infeasible."

Yesterday on this page, Sen. Bill Bradley (D- N.J.) suggested that the CBO has informed him that farm programs are not covered by our amendment. If the CBO has explicitly stated this, it has told him alone. Our proposal covers all farm programs. Additionally, he indicated confusion over whether we are using CBO or OMB numbers for purposes of calculating deficit projections. The simple fact is, the amendment has always required the CBO and the OMB to agree on data and, where such agreement is not forthcoming, that they split the difference.

The senator also offered an incredible scenario under which the domestic programs would be eliminated and defense spending exempted from the amendment. It was nothing short of ludicrous, and an obvious attempt to frighten supporters of various domestic programs into opposing our provision.

To assert that Congress would, particularly in the present climate, exempt defense from this plan is absurd. To assert that Congress, the president or the American people would tolerate the elimination of all domestic programs is equally absurd.

I will agree that our proposal brings a dose of reality and will force some hard choices in domestic spending, defense spending and taxes. But that is the intent. It is far preferable to the current process, in which no choices are made while we construct a fiscal house of cards that will inevitably collapse and cause incalculable hardship for all Americans.

But perhaps the most preposterous claim of those who oppose the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings plan is that it "burst" on the scene a little more than eight days ago. This plan has been discussed with the technical experts at the OMB and the Senate Budget Committee for more than a month, and the minority staff director of the Senate Budget Committee received a full briefing three weeks ago. Each senator was mailed detailed information on the proposal a few days later.

Yet, there are still those who claim they do not understand the proposal. I believe they understand it only too well. This amendment represents an attempt to insert some backbone and accountability into the budget proc ensuring that needed decisions, whether they be for new revenues or spending cuts, are made. It is an action-forcing mechanism. Failure by Congress to adopt such a proposal will send a signal to the American people that we are unwilling to make the hard choices needed to stave off fiscal calamity and prefer the more politically palatable process that has produced the hyper-acceleration of the deficit and brought us to the brink of economic chaos.