Debating budget balancing

WASHINGTON—Some proposals are vindicated by the arguments they elicit against them. One such proposal is a constitutional amendment to require three-fifths of both houses of Congress to approve any deficit spending, and to a majority of the full membership of both houses to increase taxes.

President Clinton says this balanced budget amendment might be vitiated by “accounting subterfuge” or multiplying unfunded mandates for local governments or the private sector. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., says the amendment might be “avoided and violated with impunity.” But “accounting subterfuge” is already common. And notice that Clinton and Byrd are both arguing that the political class, of which they are exemplars, is so untrustworthy it would disregard its oath to defend the constitution. That is one reason for the amendment.

Byrd warns that beneficiaries of programs cut to achieve compliance with the amendment might find friendly judges who would discover “rights” to those programs and who would order tax increases instead of cuts, thereby destroying the constitutional system. Certainly today’s entitlement mentality is strong, and many judges arrogantly postulate new rights, including their right to legislate.

But these tendencies should be fought frontally rather than invoked as reasons for flinching from a balanced budget amendment. Notice again that reasons for flinching from a balanced budget amendment. Notice again that Byrd’s argument assumes the untrustworthiness of contemporary government.

Clinton says the amendment would be “bad economics” because the deficit “increases automatically when the economy weakens,” thereby stimulating growth. The Washington Post agrees that the budget” is an automatic economic stabilizer.” Byrd also agrees.

But there have been deficits for 25 consecutive years and for 55 of the last 63 years, during economic expansions and contractions, because deficits are run not to regulate the economy but to serve political careerists. Deficits enable careerists to charge current consumers of government just 76 cent for every dollar of government consumed. Deficits thereby make a big government cheap, reducing resistance to the growth of government that is the careerists’ vocation.

If the constitution were amended to limit the number of terms legislators could serve, a balanced budget amendment would be unnecessary. Term limits would remove the careerist motive for abusing modern government’s vast revenue-raising and borrowing capacities.

Deficits, says the Post are “the result of political, not constitutional, failings.” True. But, then, abridgments of freedom of speech and press might today be political failings if the constitution had not been amendment to block such failings to which democracies are prey.

Clinton, Byrd and the Post are in unison when saying the amendment would enable Congress to avoid hard choices while the amendment was being ratified. But Congress avoids such choices anyway. And the wait probably would be brief: The average ratification time for amendments proposed in this century has been under 18 months. The 26th amendments that lowered the voting age took just three months.

Byrd, who boasts of being a billion-dollar industry for West Virginia, and Clinton, who has raised taxes and wanted to raise spending more than Congress would agree t( remember the “stimulus” package), oppose the amendment because it would interfere with “tough choices.” Clearly the choices they have in mind are foe higher taxes.

The Post, which is besides itself about the “Simplistic” and “dangerous” and “insidious” amendment, says it “would basically end the American system of majority rule.” Byrd, too, argues that the requirement of a three-fifths vote for raising the borrowing limit (running a deficit) would “put the government into the hands of a minority when it comes to a tax increase to balance the budget.”

But various Senate rules that Byrd likes, such as the rule regarding cloture on filibusters, give blocking power to a minority of Senators regarding everything that comes before the 535 members of Congress. And this republic rejected pure majority rule in 1789, when it ratified the Constitution with its separation of powers, checks and balances and provisions requiring supermajorities for various actions, including overriding vetoes, ratifying treaties, impeachments and proposing amendments to the Constitution.

Today the Post is encouraging just 34 senators to prevent 66 senators and at least 290 of the 435 House members (two-thirds) from spending the balanced budget amendment to the states. If it is sent, the Post will exhort 13 states to block ratification.

A system that selectively enhances the leverage of intense minorities is not inherently violative of the morality of democracy. And morally dubious things should be difficult to do. Given the tendency of our democracy to impose taxation without representation—deficit spending which saddles the unborn with debts, amounts to that—it is proper to empower a minority to inhibit abuses by the majority.