WASHINGTON - Congress must consider cutting spending for defense and entitlement programs "down the road" if it intends to balance the federal budget, a Senate Budget Committee official said yesterday.
Bill Hoagland, staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, told a panel at the National Conference of State Legislatures annual federal conference here that Congress can make progress in cutting the deficit even if entitlement and defense spending is kept "off the table" for the next two years.
However, Congress will have to find ways to cut both defense and entitlements starting in 1997 if it is to meet its target of balancing the budget by fiscal 2002, Hoagland told the group's federal budget and taxation committee, which was discussing how the federal government can balance its budget without shifting overwhelming costs and responsibilities to state and local governments.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress have vowed to pass a constitutional balanced budget amendment by the end of next month that would require Congress to balance the federal budget. The amendment would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states before it could go into effect.
Both Hoagland and Rick May, staff director for the House Budget Committee, said states can expect to receive less money from the federal government once a balanced budget amendment is passed, but that Congress will also work to ease some federal regulations to lessen the burden on states.
Congress plans to "give states maximum flexibility with minimum requirements" in the form of block grants to help state and local governments cope with less federal assistance, May said.
To balance the federal budget by 2002, Congress will have to cut $1.8 trillion in spending over seven years, Hoagland said. And, with entitlement and defense spending off the table for the time being, those spending cuts will have to come from the one-third of the budget that constitutes non-defense discretionary spending.
Several state legislators questioned the House leadership's eagerness to pass a balanced budget amendment only three weeks into a new session of Congress in which there will be 86 freshman members who will need a chance to study the issue before committing their votes one way or the other.
State legislators, both the newly elected and those returning to office, have not had a chance to digest the meaning of a federal balanced budget amendment and its effect on their governments, said Harry Wiggins, a state senator from Missouri and the chairman of the legislators' federal budget and taxation committee.
The state legislators have joined with several other groups representing state and local interests in opposing the balanced budget amendment unless it includes language protecting them from cost shifts and unfunded federal mandates.
But it is unlikely that such language will be added to the measure, because Senate proponents of the balanced budget amendment have the votes to pass it as is, Hoagland said. If unfunded mandates language is inserted into the balanced budget amendment "it will not pass," Hoagland said.