From time to time in this space, I have made note of areas where the Federal government and I seem to be hopelessly out of sync. Unfortunately for both of us, there is one area where we're oriented along the same axis: for the last three decades or so, neither of us has been able to balance a budget worth squat.

There are, to be sure, differences of scale. My indebtedness at its worst has never exceeded five figures; Washington's exceeds $5 trillion. And while I once closed my books with Chapter 7, this option is presumably not open to the government.

In the past, I have argued that the tools to balance the budget were readily available; all that was needed was the sheer will. I still believe the tools are at hand, but sheer will is conspicuous by its absence. The proposed Constitutional amendment to balance the budget has been assailed as a "gimmick", and indeed in some ways it is, but what other means of suasion is there? Fear of the electorate rules Washington, but the voters quickly seem to forget about the deficit when their pet entitlements are being threatened.

Meanwhile, it's the usual story on Capitol Hill. The Democrats have threatened to sink the amendment unless it's rewritten to take Social Security out of the numbers. The Republicans point out that the current surplus in the Social Security trust fund is being used to offset deficit spending in other areas, and that President Clinton's budget continues to rely on this surplus. If Social Security is taken out of the calculations, argues the GOP, other spending will have to be curtailed if there is to be any hope of reaching a balanced budget. It would seem sensible for the Republican majority to let the Democrats hoist themselves on this particular petard, but sensibility is in even shorter supply these days than revenue.

So, say I, bring on the amendment. In my home state, we have a lack of money and a surplus of spending ideas, but I don't see any indication that the operation of state government is any way impaired by having to comply with the state Constitution's requirement of a balanced budget. If the states can muddle through, so can the Feds; there's really no room for excuses anymore.

The Vent

24 February 1997

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 Copyright © 1997 by Charles G. Hill