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Beyond the Quick Fix

IT'S remarkable how quickly our busy lawmakers can drop everything to tinker with the United States Constitution - especially in an election year.

Fortunately, the attempt Thursday in the House of Representatives to pass a balanced-budget amendment fell nine votes short of the necessary two-thirds approval. With that setback, the sponsors of the amendment in the Senate shelved the proposal.

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The amendment would require the president each year to submit and Congress to enact a budget under which federal outlays did not exceed federal receipts, except in times of war or with the approval of three-fifths of the members of both houses.

The haste with which Congress acted was unseemly. The only serious inquiry into the ramifications of the amendment occurred in the press, not on Capitol Hill. Where were the hearings, the testimony from prominent economists and constitutional scholars, the thoughtful debate?

The proposal deserves much more thorough and dispassionate examination than it received in a year when panicky incumbents are rushing to curry favor with disgruntled voters. House members who bucked the tide showed admirable courage.

The motive behind the amendment - to eliminate the annual federal budget deficits that are digging the nation deeper and deeper into debt - is laudable. Surely that's one of the premier challenges facing the American polity. But a constitutional mandate to balance the budget is a quick fix that would be unlikely to achieve its goal and could do great harm to the economy, the legal system, and public respect for the Constitution.

President Bush, flailing about for a popular issue, latched onto the balanced-budget amendment. This is a president who, like Ronald Reagan before him, has never come close to submitting a balanced budget to Congress.

If Bush believes that a balanced budget has now become good politics as well as good policy, let him today take a pledge ("Read my lips") that next January he will send a balanced budget to Congress for fiscal year 1994, and that, if reelected, he will submit a balanced budget each year of his second term. He could challenge Bill Clinton and Ross Perot to take a similar pledge. That, at least, might lessen suspicions that support of the amendment is just another attempt to leave solution of the budget cr isis to others who will come later.

Even better, let leaders on all sides formulate plans to radically shrink the deficit over the next few years. Let the plans be presented before November, and let no one doubt that voters will expect to see them carried out.

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