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Toward Budget Balance

THE current drive to reduce the size of the federal government, and the concept that a government should not spend more money than it takes in, are related but distinctly different ideas. The first is a decision to address a current need. The second is an enduring principle of good government.

That is why Americans should be relieved that the balanced-budget amendment passed by the House 300 to 132 last Thursday did not specify that any future tax increases must pass by a three-fifths vote -- a ''supermajority'' -- in both houses of Congress.

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The supermajority provision was intended to make it harder to balance the budget by raising taxes than by cutting spending. This poses no problem now: No one's arguing for tax increases; the action is over where and how to cut spending.

But that may not always be the case. A balanced-budget constitutional amendment should not enshrine a bias as to how to achieve balance; it should only require that it be done. The options either to cut spending or raise taxes should remain equally available, each requiring one vote more than half in each house.

The framers of the Constitution were careful to require supermajorities in only a handful of special circumstances, among them ratification of treaties and passage of constitutional amendments. Routine actions, such as budgets that must be passed every year, were not included.

That reasoning made sense to most House members, who defeated the supermajority amendment and instead passed bipartisan legislation sponsored by Reps. Dan Schaefer (R) of Colorado and Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas that keeps tax votes based on a simple majority.

The issue is not settled, however. Speaker Newt Gingrich, trying to mollify Republicans who believe the supermajority was a key part of the amendment as outlined in the ''Contract With America,'' has promised it will be taken up again in April 1996, at tax-paying time. Now debate on the budget amendment moves to the Senate. But celebration is hardly called for. Congress should view the amendment with the contrition of an addict unable to kick his habit. It's about to send state legislatures on a plea fo r help: ''Stop me before I overspend again.''

The need for the amendment should invoke humility, if not embarrassment, in Congress. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas struck the right note when she called it ''a bad idea -- whose time has come.''

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