It becomes increasingly clear that the most interesting debate
of the presidential campaign would have pitted Bill Clinton against
Bill Clinton. Affirming once again that he will never settle for
one position on an issue when he can have two, or three, the
president at first said he might be able to go along with a
balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution if it provided some
flexibility during recessions. This seemed to be at least a partial
reversal of his past rejection of such an amendment in any form,
which itself was a reversal of his onetime endorsement of the idea.
By the next day, the administration was insisting it was still
unalterably opposed, no matter what the president thinks. Treasury
Secretary Robert Rubin warned that the measure would "create an
inflexibility that can turn a downturn into a recession and a
recession into a worse recession."
His fear is that the government would not be able to run a
deficit even when it urgently needed to. Talk of devising an escape
hatch was futile, he said. "I don't see how you can draft an escape
hatch that will protect you against all contingencies."
There is something charming about Rubin's fantasy that a
relentlessly frugal Congress will refuse to let the budget go into
deficit no matter what, stubbornly raising taxes and slashing
spending even when the economy is in ruins. This is like worrying
that Bruce Willis will henceforth refuse to make any movie not
based on an Anthony Trollope novel.
The reality is that in recent decades, our elected leaders have
been pathetically eager to spend well beyond our means even during
boom times. In the last 40 years, the federal budget has been
balanced exactly three times. The last balanced budget was in 1969.
During the expansion of 1982-89 and the current expansion, which
began in 1991, the deficit has never dropped below $100 billion.
Yet the secretary of the treasury has circles under his eyes from
lying awake at night fretting that we'll develop an incorrigible
habit of budgetary responsibility.
In fact, we're addicted to getting more government than we pay
for, year after year. Since 1981, we've added nearly $3 trillion to
the federal debt - and, in the best-case scenario, it will take
five years to bring spending and revenue into balance. We like
government programs, but we hate paying for them. The habit feeds
on itself: The more deficits we run, the more we have to pay in
interest on the debt, and the harder it gets to eliminate the