Congress Tries (Again) to Cap Federal Budget

Article excerpt

This could be the month a constitutional amendment to balance the budget of the United States finally passes Congress - radically reshaping how government works.

After nearly two decades of debate, supporters believe they are on the cusp of having the needed two-thirds votes to push the proposal through both chambers and send it on to the states for ratification.

Passage could ultimately lead to huge cuts in "discretionary" spending - in such areas as education, the environment, or national parks - and serious reform of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. But it would also reduce the billions of dollars the US spends each year on interest on the national debt. Though Congress and the president are working on taming the federal deficit now, balancing the books under the amendment would no longer be a political choice but a legal mandate. "It seems to me that only the balanced-budget amendment can save this country from being swallowed in debt," says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, in a preview of the kind of rhetoric to come. Senate backers now believe they have 68 votes, one more than the two-thirds needed. The calculation in the House is less certain, though members say they're within a handful of votes of victory. An early test of sentiment will come today as the Senate begins debate on the issue. Last session, a balanced-budget amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate by one vote. This time the Senate is going first, perhaps to give a boost to supporters in the lower chamber, where turnover of about 20 supporters has complicated chances of passage. The bill's success pivots in part on an arcane accounting procedure - whether to include the Social Security Trust Fund in budget-balancing calculations. At issue is the way Congress and the White House use Social Security moneys to "mask the true size of the deficit," in the words of Rep. Mark Neumann (R) of Wisconsin, and whether it is better to have Social Security on or off budget. President Clinton, who cannot veto the amendment, cites Social Security in his jawboning against the measure. Congressional stances on the proposal generally fall into three camps: * Those who support it, a majority in both houses, including all 55 Senate Republicans and Democrats such as Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun of Illinois and Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts; * Those who support it only if Social Security is exempted, including a group of Senate Democrats who have introduced an alternative amendment and a group of 35 House Republicans who advocate a similar measure; * Those who oppose it outright, mostly liberal Democrats. Opponents say balancing the budget doesn't require a constitutional amendment. But supporters reply that Congress will not do so without it. …