The new drive in Congress for a balanced budget amendment is a puzzle, but we don't like it. We're not much for changing James Madison's great work, whether it's to stop flag-burning, congressional pay raises, whiskey-drinking, or uncontrolled federal spending.
The deficit numbers certainly have mushroomed recently, and thoughtful economists warn that the country is borrowing too much and investing too little. The deficit has doubled, to $4 trillion from $2 trillion, in the last six years, and for the first time the federal government next year will spend more to pay interest on the national debt than it will pay for any other budget item, such as defense of Social Security. Gross interest in fiscal 1993 will total $315 billion.
The New York Times last week was good enough to publish all this in a dialogue on the amendment.
Paul Simon, the bow-tied liberal Illinois Democrat who is championing the amendment in the U.S. Senate, reports that he has 50 co-sponsors for the measure. In an ideal world, he says, we wouldn't need a balanced budget amendment, but the real world is different. The deficit and interest payments are veering out of control, and he claims there are few if any alternatives.
Rudolph G. Penner, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, views the amendment differently. He says a balanced budget amendment will be disastrous and won't work any better than the Gramm-Rudman law, which promised the federal budget would be balanced by fiscal 1991. Instead, the government ended that year $269 billion in the red.
Forty-nine states have laws to keep their budgets balanced, Mr. Penner also points out, but many routinely maneuver around them. If there is no political will to realize a goal, Mr. Penner argues, putting it into the Constitution will not help. It's like Prohibition.
Then, too, the amendment, if enacted, will make Washington order the states to pay for more programs it can't pay for itself. That's not good either.
Overall, the amendment is a bum idea. Sen. Simon complains that "unless Congress discards business-as-usual, the deficit will shape our destiny," but that's not an argument for a Constitutional amendment. It's a argument for discarding congressional muddling. The federal deficit won't shape our destiny, Congress will.
The federal government doubtless can tax or borrow and spend more wisely, but it doesn't not need a constitutional crutch to run its fiscal affairs correctly. It needs more effective leadership, and perhaps it will get it. November's coming.