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That 67th Senator

NORTH Dakota hasn't had this much attention in years: Not just one but both of its senators, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, are at this writing among the ``band of five,'' who are publicly undecided on the balanced-budget amendment set for a vote by the Senate today.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire counts 66 of his colleagues already on board. The amendment needs just one of the five undecideds to go to the states for ratification.

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We hope that 67th senator is found. We urge a yes vote despite a number of serious reservations, starting with a general reluctance to amend the Constitution. We don't know what will happen as the amendment works its way through the state legislatures for ratification. Will the prospect of a constitutional requirement bearing down on them start legislators moving in the right direction - or will it inspire one last splurge?

The possibility of a deadlocked Congress having to hand over budget authority to the courts is troubling. And we can't help noticing that no proponent of the amendment has actually shown how the budget is to be balanced, and congressional creativity in doing it all with smoke and mirrors is not to be underestimated. Moreover, some proponents seem interested in balancing by a time when they themselves are no longer in Congress.

The case is made that the amendment would undercut the federal government's ability to spend countercyclically in time of recession, but given how often the federal budget has been balanced, in good times or bad, over the past 30 years - once - this argument is less than compelling.

What the balanced-budget amendment has going for it is that despite its flaws it should support efforts within the Congress to exercise budgetary restraint. It doesn't have to work perfectly to be a big improvement over the status quo. A constitutional requirement for balance should help stiffen the spine of members who know in their hearts they need to vote to cut spending on certain programs, or yes, maybe even vote a tax increase to close a budget gap. ``The Constitution made me do it!'' can be their defense back in their home districts.

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