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Forget the amendment - balance the budget.


The federal deficit will not only be the first and greatest challenge to greet President Clinton when he takes office next month, a sure bet that this monumental problem will not be entirely resolved when he leaves office, no matter how aggressive the President. is toward deficit reduction.

It won't go away by wishing it away, which is the only thing that proposals for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution would do. The best thing for the President and the Congress to do is to get serious, very serious, abut balancing the federal budget for the long run, starting right now. This means managing difficult and essential decisions to control costs and improve effectivness restructure entitlement programs and health care, stop playing games with taxes and make honest decisions for change toward reviving the nation's economy.

There is no denying that the federal deficit is a staggering problem. It also is not new. The last President to 'even propose a balanced budget was Jimmy Carter, and the last time Congress actually approved one was when President Lyndon Johnson submitted a balanced plan in 1967, during the height of the Vietnam war. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the federal deficit has soared to more than $300 billion a year-and neither of them ever submitted a balanced budget to ConFess for approval.

If nothing changes, the national debt will more than double in the next ten years to a level in excess of $6 trillion. The interest expense alone to service .the national debt will also double, from $200 billion this year to more than $400 billion annually. These num'bers are so large, and so frightening, they are difficult to comprehend.

From my perspective as a local elected official, I'm apprehensive. The black hole of red ink gaping between annual federal revenues and expenses is big enough to swallow 2000 cities the size of Sunnyvale, a community of 120,000 people with a $100 million city budget. Just the interest payments on the national debt, which are paying for past excesses rather than current services, are large enough to fund the entire budget of the state of California, five times. When you consider that California is home to one of every eight Americans, you begin to grasp the magnitude of the deficit problem.

The numbers mean this: The federal deficit sucks up our taxes for interest on the debt, rather than for vital services. It distorts the national economy by making it difficult for business and industry to borrow capital for growth. It puts a severe straightjacket on the ability of the federal government to address the urgent needs of our nations, much less respond to sweeping crises like Desert Storm or Hurri-= cane Andrew or the need to invest in America's future.

Many, including members of Congress who should know better, have clamored for a balanced budget amendment as a method to control the growing debt. When the new administration and Congress take office, we can certainly expect to see these proposals put forward again.

Americans must not fall for this shell game. It is the job of the President to submit a plan to balance the budget and restore the economy. It is the job of the Congress to pass a balanced budget. There is nothing to stop them from doing their jobs right now. If they don't, no amendment to the Constitution will do it for them. Constitutional amendraents require ratification by two thirds. of the states, which could take up to seven years. America can't wait ! If the Constitution is amended, what happens if Congress doesn't balance the budget? Will the Supreme COurt send them to jail? There may be other good reasons for jailing some members of Congress, but violating a balanced budget amendment won't make it happen. And if they ignore the amendment, as they have already done with their self-imposed budget restrictions such as the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law, it will underscore public contempt for the federal government and erode its political ability to accomplish the public's goals. All balanced budget amendment proposals offered to date allow for the amendment to be waived "in the national interest." Give the public a break --there really is no enforcement mechanism in the event of non-compliance by the President or Congress.

The shell game would go on, for guess who will define a balanced budget? Congress, of course. We already have seen how creative accounting schemes keep entitl.ement programs such as Social Security or the savings and loan bailouts "off budget," so that it doesn't look as bad as it really is.

From a local point of view, I would fully expect the federal government to simply pass its deficits on to the states and cities, through mandates to provide services without providing the resources to pay for them. This means cities and states would have to .raise taxes and cut services, instead of the federal government. We have already seen how this works at the state level in California, where Sacramento has both placed mandates on cities while taking municipal revenues away. The federal con game following a balanced budget amendment could push most states and cities over the edge.

What good is an artificially balanced federal budget if it doesn't fix the root of the problem-spending more than you. take in--bankrupting states and cities? The only positive statement you can make about the concept is that it gives the appearance of action, even though the action is meaningless at best, and realistically, a hazard for all taxpayers.

It has taken a dozen years of administrative and congressional negligence and incompetence to get us into this hole, and it will take a long time to dig our way out. Any "quick fix" is certain to be the wrong solution. To balance the budget over the next five years, with or without a constitutional amendment, would require at least $1.5 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases.

That will require extraordinary focus and fortitude by President Clinton and the Congress, which would be squandered by the hoax of a constitutional amendment. We must hold the federal government accountable for real solutions, and real decisions, immediately,. to prevent today's fiscal disaster from becoming tomorrow's irrevocable ruin.
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Title Annotation:Opinion
Author:Stone, Lawrence
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jan 18, 1993
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