If ever there were an act of political desperation, it is the proposed constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget that is now moving toward a vote.
Recently forced out of committee, the measure is expected to come to a vote on the floor of the House in a few days. It would be the first vote on a balanced budget amendment since 1982.Congress' reluctance to deal with this measure reflects not only the lawmakers' reservations about its effectiveness, but also their persistent preference for spending over belt-tightening.
But the fact that the amendment is finally coming to a pivotal vote also reflects some lack of confidence in the ability of the Gramm-Rudman law to balance the budget and no little disgust with the fiscal tricks Congress keeps playing.
Under the proposed amendment, federal spending could not constitutionally exceed estimated revenues except during war or if three-fifths of both the House and Senate approved a specific deficit.
It's easy to criticize this concept. For openers, deficits authorized during wartime would not necessarily end when the shooting stopped. It can take many years for an economy mobilized for a major war to shift gears back to peacetime. The same thing goes for a depression or a major recession.
Even when the economy is stable, it's hard to assure a balanced budget very far in advance because of the problems involved in accurately forecasting revenues and expenditures. For example, an increase of one percent in the unemployment rate automatically costs the Treasury more than $20 billion in lost revenue and increased welfare expenditures. To keep budgets in the required balance, Congress would be under pressure to maintain large working balances by over-taxing.
As flawed as the amendment is, it's even easier to find fault with the present system of budget-making. Though the White House regularly criticizes Congress for spending too much, the Oval Office itself never submits a budget anywhere close to being in balance. Then there are the fiscal games that Washington repeatedly plays by putting various loans off-budget, refusing to spend trust funds badly needed for roads and airports, and also using Social Security funds to make the deficit look smaller than it really is.
Despite its many shortcomings, the balanced budget amendment may be the only alternative to Washington's habitual lack of self-discipline. But what a sad commentary it is on this nation's willingness and ability to tailor what it wants to its ability to pay the tab.