Two departing congressional leaders who oppose an amendment to the Constitution to balance the federal budget Sunday said they think it will nevertheless pass Congress in the coming year, bringing with it drastic spending cuts.
The 104th Congress will get under way Jan. 4, led by Republicans in both the House and the Senate for the first time in four decades."I think it will pass; I think it won't help, in fact I think it will hurt," outgoing Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said of the amendment. If ratified by state legislatures, the amendment would force Congress to cut spending drastically in the years ahead to prepare for its imposition soon after the turn of the century.
"It may well be the next amendment to the Constitution," House Speaker Thomas Foley said, although he said he agreed with Mitchell that such a legal straitjacket on government finances would be a bad idea.
Both Democrats are leaving Capitol Hill along with their party's control of the legislative agenda. Mitchell did not run for reelection, and Foley was defeated in his bid for re-election. Both spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday.
The Republican leadership has pledged to vote on the balanced budget amendment in the House during the first 100 days of the session. Incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood, R-Ore., has said he thinks it will clear Congress by April.
The balanced budget amendment would force Congress to eliminate the annual deficit by cutting spending and increasing revenues and has been opposed by the Clinton administration as something that could damage the economy.
"It will be seen as action on the deficit when in fact it will not be," Mitchell said.
Foley said he agreed with Mitchell, "I don't believe it will be helpful." Foley said "you really don't accomplish much by creating an amendment that is very hard to write, that involves the courts in its enforcement."
"I think we ought to be slow to amend the Constitution," Foley said. "Just a few years ago we had almost half a dozen pending amendments to the Constitution, flag burning, abortion, prayer in the public schools, the balanced budget amendment, and so forth."
But now, "I don't think many people would support a constitutional amendment on flag burning," he said.
Both leaders also said they oppose giving the president the authority to veto budget provisions line by line by changing the Constitution, saying there were other means that could do the job better.
Mitchell said the line-item veto as it exists in some states "is rarely if ever actually exercised." Instead it is used as "a threat to enhance executive spending priorities as opposed to legislative spending priorities."
The sharp spending cuts that would be forced by a balanced budget amendment have gotten far less attention in both recent White House statements and those of incoming congressional leaders than the cuts in taxes being promised by both parties.