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
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
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
* 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. …