Budget amendment: substance or sideshow?
How can Washington's battle over the balanced budget amendment become something more constructive than a futile political diversion from the present grossly unbalanced budget? By generating enough public interest to demand that the President and Congress show the will and skill to control the budget whatever the apparatus for doing so.
This need was seen when Congress passed its ground-breaking Budget Control Act of 1974. Veteran congressmen warned that making the design work would be no less onerous than devising it and that members of Congress could quickly find ways to bend the legislated reforms.
If that act had been made to work better by Congress with White House cooperation, there would be little clamor now for going beyond it with a constitutional amendment. The same warnings about follow-through would apply if the amendment should be passed. The best immediate outcome of yesterday's Capitol rally for controlling the budget by amendment would be renewed Washington zeal for controlling it by the means already available. There is no need to wait through the years of an amendment and ratification process.
At any rate, it is wise for Congress to be taking up the matter and thus forestalling the uncertainties and complications of a constitutional convention. Only three more state legislatures would have to act to require such a convention.
As it is, the current public debate can shed valuable light on whether a constitutional amendment is indeed the best means of controlling the budget - and, if it is, whether the proposed version is the best for the purpose. Among the points for discussion:
* Procedures. The amendment is not simply a prescription for a balanced budget. It would use the Constitution to outline a procedure for producing a budget whether balanced or not. Congress would have to start out by matching planned expenditures and planned receipts. Congress and the president would be required to ensure that actual outlays do not exceed the stated outlays. But a 60 percent vote in each house would be sufficient to offer an unbalanced budget. The rules would be waived in case of a declared war.
Questions include whether outlays would be defined to deter spending through such devices as trust funds or ''off budget'' items; whether the vote requirements would tie up Congress in damaging delays; whether unusual arms spending might be called for, as in Vietnam, without declaration of war.
* Accountability. The present taxation and budget system allows many automatic increases in taxes and expenditures without anyone being strictly accountable. The amendment would work toward accountability with the above-mentioned 60 percent vote requiring members of Congress to stand up and be counted when unbalancing the budget. Increased accountability could be achieved right away by reducing the deductions, credits, and other ''tax expenditures'' that Congress has passed to foster certain economic or social goals. These go on silently and automatically without further congressional action. Immediate accountability in the spirit of the amendment could be achieved if Congress replaced the tax expenditures with subsidies on which it could be seen taking action.
* Economic policy. The amendment seeks to prevent Congress from balancing the budget simply by raising revenues. It limits the rate of increase in federal receipts to no more than the rate of increase in national income in the previous year. To exceed the limit would require a majority vote by both houses.
The upshot here appears to be a limiting of federal expenditures to the existing ratio with national income. There may be times when the goverment might need a balanced budget at a higher level of both expenditures and receipts. Does the public want to deter such action by means of the Constitution? Does it want to prevent increases in social or defense programs for example, by decreeing that the receipts cannot be raised to meet them?
Among other issues to be considered in going the constitutional route is whether it opens the door to extensive litigation, drawing the courts into the federal budget process as never before.
Enough questions exist to cause considerable outside opposition to the amendment even though its momentum has been growing in the state legislatures and now in Congress. The need is to ensure that such questions are explored and not ignored in the rush.