WASHINGTON -- Congress will not take serious steps to control spending for entitlement programs until the federal budget deficit enters a "crisis stage," a prominent Washington economist said yesterday.

Herbert Stein, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the federal budget deficit is considered controllable as long as it remains below 2.5% of gross domestic product.

However, the deficit is projected to explode early in the next century unless health care and entitlement spending are reined in, and until that explosion lawmakers will avoid hard choices like cutting Social Security and reducing Medicare subsidies, Stein said at a lecture series sponsored by the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute.

It is heartening that "the story of our long-term budget problems is being told more and more" by groups like the Concord Coalition, which advocates deficit reduction, and the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform, headed by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., he said.

To think that amending the constitution to require Congress to balance the federal budget is enough to keep lawmakers from overspending is both "simple and simple-minded," Stein said.

"I don't like this idea because I don't like to reward hypocrisy," he said.

The proponents of a balanced budget amendment are the same lawmakers who have failed to offer programs to balance the budget, he said, and until they do, "we just have to say they are proposing limitations on their successors that they have no intentions of abiding by themselves."

The most reasonable approach to taking care of future deficit woes and controlling entitlement spending is a series of small cuts laid out over several years, Stein said, but "the obstacle is this hang-up on the middle class."

In a recent poll, 93% of Americans considered themselves middle-class, and economists consider everyone but the lowest 20% of wage earners and the highest 5% to be middle-class, he said. So it follows that "if we are serious about the present generation giving up something for the sake of the future, the present sacrifice will have to come from today's middle class," Stein said.

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