Should the Constitution be amended to balance the federal budget?
By President Reagan's own conservative projections, his planned budget deficits for the fiscal years 1982-85 will add about $345 billion to the $1 trillion national debt run-up in the entire 200 years before his term. Small wonder, then, there is a renewed outcry to amend the Constitution to limit federal spending and balance the budget.
But the administration's ill-considered tax policies and uncontrolled military spending must not stampede the Congress into passing an amendment.
Such proposals were a bad idea when we confronted Democratic deficits; they remain so in the face of the projected historic Republican ones.
However sound and valid the objectives of these proposals might be, the nine hearings I have conducted on this issue have convinced me that a constitutional amendment is not a wise and workable way to reduce federal spending. That also is the consensus of expert witnesses from across the spectrum of economic theory.
If an amendment were too strict, it would prevent the Congress from using fiscal policy to counter a recession and could thereby bring on or exacerbate economic crises. Economic forecasting is, quite obviously, an imperfect science. Even the best-intentioned projections can badly miss the mark because of unexpected events. For example, a 1 percentage point error in forecasting the unemployment rate -- current circumstances show how easily such error can occur -- can raise outlays by $7.5 billion and reduce receipts by $20 billion. For fiscal 1982, the present recession accounts for nearly all the difference between the $45 billion deficit foreseen last year by the administration and its current estimate of $98.6 billion.
What might happen if we had a truly binding amendment today? Assuming a majority vote were possible, the Congress might raise taxes -- and thus abort recovery. It might slash spending to balance the budget, a move that would create additional suffering and hardship, threaten national security, and bring about economic and social havoc.
If a majority vote to raise taxes or cut expenditures were impossible, and a supermajority of 60 percent required by most proposals to bless a deficit were likewise unattainable, the government would be paralyzed.
A strict amendment could also lead to dubious government practices to circumvent the balanced-budget requirement. Programs could be moved off-budget so as not to be reflected in the deficit. Such off-budget outlays are estimated at $15.7 billion for fiscal 1983, including $2.8 billion for purchase of strategic petroleum reserve oil, a method of financing favored by the administration in this case. In addition, the government could substitute regulation for spending, requiring more private outlays for purposes, such as pollution control, that might more logically be funded by the government.
On the other hand, if the amendment were made flexible and permitted exceptions to and evasions of the balanced-budget requirement, it would be meaningless, rhetorical clutter in the Constitution.
A study done for the House Judiciary Committee in 1980 raised serious questions about how an amendment could be enforced without granting to the President broad impoundment powers -- something that the Congress in recent years has sought to limit -- or without creating a new and cumbersome parliamentary procedure in the Congress.
In the end, the enforcement issue would probably wind up in the courts, thus effectively giving the Judicial Branch control of the federal budget. If this were to happen, OMB Director Stockman told a Senate committee last year, ''The Congress would have alienated one of the central and essential powers . . . granted by the Constitution; namely the power to raise and spend money for the public interests of this country.''
At a hearing last spring, another Reagan administration official expressed a decided coolness toward the idea of a balanced-budget amendment. Murray Weidenbaum, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, pleaded for the Congress and the nation to give President Reagan's economic program a chance to get spending under control without ''the complications of a constitutional amendment.''
The first year of that program has been found dismally wanting. Proponents of the amendments are responding to a deeply felt concern of the American people that the levels of federal spending are too high.
But the authority to amend the Constitution is an awesome one. Abraham Lincoln cautioned that ''. . . No slight occasion should tempt us to touch it.''
Our Constitution is a splendid and enduring document. It is the supreme law of our nation. It has been amended only 26 times in two centuries. We must shrink from enshrining in the Constitution an ill-considered method of setting economic policy that may only exacerbate the problems we now confront.
Firm political resolve is needed to control budget growth. If that will does not exist, constitutional amendment won't help. If the will does exist, the will to plug the tax loopholes, to stop the tax giveaways, to shelter no sacred cows, an amendment would not be needed to bring about the fiscal balance we all want.