Juggling the books to balance the budget
An idea whose time should never come is the proposal of a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. There are four things wrong with it.
The first is that even the flintiest sponsors agree that there has to be some kind of loophole to allow for war or other disaster. Most of the versions would allow deficit spending by a three-fifths vote. Most appropriations are passed by a much bigger vote than that. Goodbye balanced budget.
Secondly, the idea is fraudulent. It gives the appearance of being something which it is not. It violates truth-in-labeling. It is conceived and presented as a means of imposing fiscal discipline on Congress, but in point of fact it is a way for Congress to pull the cloak of fiscal responsibility about itself while merrily piling up ever higher deficits.
Congress has solemnly enacted legal requirements for a balanced budget before to no avail. In 1978 it wrote into law a requirement that the total budget outlays of the federal government not exceed receipts, beginning in 1981. This was done as part of the law authorizing the United States to participate in the Supplementary Financing Facility of the International Monetary Fund. It was also done at a time well before the beginning of the 1980 presidential campaign in which promises to balance the budget played such a prominent role.
At the height of that campaign, and as fiscal 1981 approached, Congress diluted the requirement which it had imposed two years before. The law was amended to say simply that ''Congress reaffirms its commitment'' that total budget outlays shall not exceed receipts. This was at a time when everybody knew full well that budget outlays would indeed exceed receipts in 1981, and when the about-to-be President-elect was seizing every opportunity to promise a balanced budget by 1984.
Now that we are in fiscal 1982, the House has voted to repeal what Congress enacted in 1978 and diluted in 1980. The House did this as part of the urgent supplemental appropriation bill adding $5.9 billion to a 1982 budget which was already out of balance by $114 billion. Before throwing up its hands and repealing the whole thing, the House had refused, by a vote of 132-276, to apply the balanced budget ''commitment'' to the urgent supplemental.
One could scarcely find a better example of the futility of legislating political responsibility - or the cynicism of presenting a constitutional amendment as a restraint on government spending.
Ronald Reagan continues to picture himself as the budget-cutter, the economizer protecting the taxpayers' interests against the rapacious spenders in Congress and the Democratic Party. He does all this in the patient tones and simple words of a teacher trying to get an elementary point across to a slightly backward child. And all the time he knows that the budget he sent to Congress in January had a record deficit of $91 billion. This estimate has since more than doubled, and people in the White House and on Capitol Hill are talking about holding the deficit to $100 billion as evidence of fiscal restraint. This turns words upside down.
This brings us to the third thing wrong with the balanced budget amendment, and that is the incentive it would provide for what is euphemistically called ''creative accounting.'' When all else fails, you simply take an item out of the budget and pretend it no longer costs the government money. That is what has been proposed with social security, which, as things stand, is a major political and budgetary embarrassment.
There are ways to forbid this kind of sleight of hand, but they involve complex rules which would have to be riveted in the Constitution. Inasmuch as Congress is going to write the amendment, we may assume that Congress is going to take care not to make the rules too tight.
But in any event - and this is the fourth thing wrong with the idea - the Constitution is no place for this kind of detail. Much of the grandeur and durability of the Constitution stems from its simplicity and intricate balance. This is likely to be destroyed by tinkering with it.
Much of the drive for a balanced budget amendment comes from a correct feeling that the budget is out of control. Congress passed a law to control it and that did not work; so, it is concluded, let us put it in the Constitution. This demonstrates faith in the power of the Constitution, but it is irrelevant to the reasons the budget is out of control. These are political irresponsibility - and a messed-up economy.