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Against the Budget Amendment

Spending should be trimmed, but no consensus exists as to how, a Democratic senator argues

An immense hoax is about to be perpetrated on the public at large, and I hope that the people will get quickly about the business of informing themselves of the ramifications of the so-called balanced-budget amendment before it is too late. The American people could do themselves no better favor than to become intimately involved with the details and the probable impact of this proposal.

According to recent polls, an overwhelming percentage of Americans support the concept of a balanced-budget amendment. If one went solely by these polling numbers, one could say that this is an idea whose time has come. What is wrong with this Congress that it has not already passed this fabulous balanced-budget amendment? But, if one looks closer at these same polls, it becomes glaringly apparent that there exists no consensus as to how to get to a balanced budget.

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Some proponents of this balanced-budget amendment want to exempt Social Security and defense spending from cuts. If one adds to that list the interest on the national debt, which cannot be cut and must be paid, then more than half of the federal budget will have been excluded from any effort to balance the budget.

When we take those items off the table, the prime candidate left to feel the budget ax becomes the domestic discretionary budget. This is the portion of the federal budget that funds education, veterans' medical care and pensions, research and development projects, and crime-fighting efforts; builds roads; protects people's health and safety; fosters our ability to compete globally; and generally invests in our future.

If we devastate that part of the budget that addresses the basic needs of the nation, we are walking away from those responsibilities at the federal level and relegating them to the states and cities and local communities. Some would say yahoo! Get the federal government off my back! That is the standard talk-show answer.

The passage of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget will shift traditional federal responsibilities to the states and cities and towns.

We will be creating a patchwork quilt of a nation, with some states able to meet the increased responsibilities dumped on them while other states are unable to do so. Some states will face enormous unemployment, some will have dilapidated and unsafe transit, and others will be left with overwhelmed and inadequate hospitals.

Some are saying that to discuss such things would kill the amendment. What we are doing is hiding these things from the American people in order to rush this ill-conceived idea through the mill.

It is the height of irresponsibility to avoid speaking very plainly to the nation about what is at stake here. We have to form a consensus about how to continue to reduce the federal deficit rather than pass a constitutional amendment that would place our nation's economic policy in a straitjacket. We are on the road to balancing the budget. We cannot let up. We have passed important and significant deficit reduction measures in 1990 and in 1993, the latter without the help of a single vote from the Rep ublican majority in either the House or the Senate. What does that tell the people about the reality of expecting to get votes on legislation that will be required to balance the budget -- legislation that would inflict pain? If the supporters of this amendment have the two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to adopt this constitutional amendment, they must have a majority of votes in both houses to pass real legislation now that would effectively bring the budget into balance.

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What is going on here is nothing less than politicians falling all over each other to embrace something that is popular -- popular because it is simply misunderstood. Sloganeering has taken the place of serious legislation, and only the American people can turn that around. I implore the citizenry to insist that Congress tell the nation exactly how it intends to get the budget into balance.

An informed and active citizenry is essential for the workings of a representative democracy. It is up to the people to exercise their right to know by demanding explanations to the many unanswered questions about this constitutional amendment.

I hope that they will be relentless and ruthless in their pursuit of knowledge concerning the proposed constitutional amendment to balance the budget -- an amendment that will permanently alter our system of checks and balances and separation of powers.

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