Earlier this year, it seemed that the combined pressures of politics and the prospect of huge federal budget deficits into the new century would produce congressional approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
Even some of those who have doubted the wisdom of such an amendment agreed at least with the judgment that it was "a bad idea whose time has come." The House will vote on the amendment next week but the Senate's failure last week to cast the two-thirds vote needed to approve a constitutional amendment means that their judgment at best was only half right; the amendment won't get another Senate vote until next year.In this year's debate, the idea of such an amendment again was labeled a ''gimmick," a doubtful substitute for the hard votes so badly needed to reduce the deficit but so seldom cast. I'd like to make some points about gimmicks.
To begin with, a gimmick isn't necessarily a bad thing. One dictionary says a gimmick is a "crafty or fraudulent device" or "a trick or stratagem" or ''an ingenious expedient or new contrivance." That suggests gimmicks may be good or bad, depending on your point of view.
It also seems clear that whether a balanced budget amendment is a good or bad gimmick, it is in keeping with our rich tradition of budgetary gimmickry. Unfortunately, that tradition has been costly as well as rich. Past gimmicks - "expedients," if you prefer - have left us with a $4.5 trillion national debt and hundreds of billions in interest payments to service it each year.
And no long-term relief is in sight. While the deficit is expected to decline over the next few years under the Clinton budget plan narrowly approved by Congress last year, it still is projected to begin moving up sharply again before the end of the century.
Good gimmick or bad gimmick, the balanced budget ironically went down on a 63-37 vote, four votes short of the two-thirds needed, in part by the use of a parliamentary gimmick or "trick." That was a much less restrictive alternative that lost by a 22-78 margin. While the alternative had no chance of approval, among those voting for it were seven Democratic senators who later voted against the main amendment. Their votes were critical to defeating the main amendment but they are free to go back home and proclaim their support for a balanced budget.
The debate on the amendment also led to other charges of gimmickry. It was noted, for example, that a proposal to cut $94 billion in real federal spending over the next five years drew only 31 Senate votes, or less than half the number who voted for the balanced budget amendment. People, it seems, may like an idea but not its practical application.
There were warnings, too, that a balanced budget amendment would lead to a proliferation of other congressional gimmicks or "devices" to get out from under its burden when it would take effect by 2001. Congress might move major programs off the budget, shift the cost burden of other programs by mandates on the states or employers, or even set up separate budgets for long-term capital investments and current operating expenses.
I would find it hard to believe that a Congress would stoop to such ''contrivances" except for the fact that it already has used some.
And I like the idea of separate capital and operating budgets with a requirement that the operating ledger be balanced. Households and businesses, the old argument goes, balance their budgets, why can't the federal government? The fact, of course, is that households consider their books balanced even though they have long-term indebtedness for investments involving long-term benefits - such as mortgages and student loans.
Businesses do much the same for long-term investments and such separate ledgers underpin the balanced budgets of most states. Why can't the federal government use a similar "device" in treating infrastructure and education programs with long-term payoffs?
The gimmickry surrounding the balanced budget amendment did not end with the Senate debate. The amount of the House support for the amendment next week may be a little contrived: The Senate defeat permits House members to vote for it in the knowledge that even the seven years allowed for it to take effect can't begin before a Senate vote next year.
I'd like to join in the fun and offer an idea, partly my own, on how to cut the budget deficit.
I mean a simple, immediately enactable, statute, requiring the president to include in each budget his choice of additional spending cuts and/or tax increases to cut the deficit by more than he is proposing.
How much more? How about by an amount that would prevent the deficit from rising in years when the president is proposing a higher deficit than the year before, or that would permit, say, a 10 percent to 20 percent larger cut in years when he is recommending essentially the same or a lower deficit?
The House and Senate, in turn, would be required to vote annually on the president's additional deficit reduction package or on one of equal size of their own.
Wars and recessions aside - and they would require exceptions - adherence to such a budget rule would mean that the deficit could decrease but not increase. It would also permit those who favor a balanced budget a clear opportunity to cast real votes toward that goal.
Just another gimmick, you say? Hell, no, it's a "stratagem."