Addressing the subject of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, President Clinton’s choice to be the Democratic National Committee’s rhetorician, demonstrates why he may not be quite right for that role.
Arguing with more vim than rigor, he says that in 206 years about 11,000 constitutional amendments have been proposed but only 27 have been adopted, a number reflecting a reluctance arising from due reverence for the document. So far so good. But then he says the balanced budget amendment is a “gimmick” and a “gutless wonder” and a way “to duck the decisions” because “it doesn’t really say how you’re going to do it.”
But surely Dodd does not really think the amendment itself should “say” what the budgets will be between now and 2002, when the first balanced budget would be required. The Constitution stipulates destinations, it does not draw detailed maps.
Dodd also says that if Congress passes and 38 states ratify the amendment, Congress will “sort of run away from it.” Forty-eight states have some sort of balanced budget requirement but Dodd says “they’ve come up with every imaginable gimmick to get around it - from bonding and capital budgets and all sorts of other maneuvers. … My fear is we’ll be just like they are. We’ll come up with every imaginable trick we can to avoid that responsibility.”
States do indeed adopt various tactics to mitigate the severity of balanced budget requirements, but in the last four years the 50 states have produced 200 budgets, 184 of them balanced. The federal government has not balanced a budget since 1969, when Chris Dodd’s father was in the Senate.
But let us sum up. Dodd so reveres the Constitution, he is loath to amend it. But if it is amended to require a balanced budget, the political class - Dodd’s “we” - will cheat to avoid compliance, thereby violating the oath of office that enjoins protection of the Constitution.
Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the Democratic whip, opposes the amendment. He, too, says “it’s important to approximate a balanced budget” but also important to be forthright about how that will be achieved. Asked how he would do it, he forthrightly says he would cut defense and intelligence agencies and would achieve unspecified efficiencies by reforming existing programs. Asked if Democrats have tax increases in mind, he says, “No. In fact we have tax cuts in mind” for the middle class, and “we’re not proposing any new taxes on the wealthy.” That is a liberal’s idea of saying “how you’re going to do it.”
By spring, before states begin ratification debates about an amendment, Republicans will submit a budget blueprint for balance by 2002. Balance can be achieved if federal spending increases - yes, increases - “only” about 30 percent by 2002. (Current forecasts are for a 50 percent increase and soaring deficits.)
Or balance can be achieved in 2002 by cutting everything but Social Security, defense and interest payments 14 percent. Or (this from James Glassman, writing in The Washington Post) by leaving Social Security and Medicare untouched, limiting Medicaid increases to 5 percent annually, and limiting all other spending to a 2 percent annual increase. Make that limit 1 percent and the Republicans can have their tax cut of $150 billion over five years and still be in balance by 2002.
Dodd says the balanced budget amendment is unwise because it would limit the government’s “mobility … during times of crisis.” But all the amendment requires to authorize deficit spending is three-fifths of the votes in each house. So Dodd is fearing a “crisis” that 41 percent of each house would think nonexistent. Some crisis.
For all their talk of candor and crises, many liberals do not want a balanced budget amendment because they do not want balanced budgets. They do not want them for the same reason they do not want to ban imposing unfunded mandates on states - they want swollen and swelling government but know they cannot continue to have that if they cannot disguise the cost with unfunded mandates, or cannot, with deficit spending, shove the cost onto voters not yet born.
It is difficult to strike a moralist’s pose while defending current practices, but The New York Times tries. Citing a study by Rep. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, the Times says that plans to cut spending, taxes and mandates will help “the truly greedy” and might cause a New York subway token to cost 15 cents more. This latter horror suggests a question about the former one: Is it maybe a tiny bit greedy for New Yorkers to want the federal government to continue taxing the rest of us to subsidize their subway?