Steve Chapman
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When I graduated from college in 1976, I got a job in Washington with the National Taxpayers Union, which was working to get a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. Someone graduating today could sign up there and pursue the same goal. The balanced-budget amendment has never gone away and never come to pass.

Last week, a vote in the House of Representatives fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for that measure. But we haven't seen the last of it. If Republicans capture the White House and the Senate next year, expect another push.

This may seem like the right moment for the amendment. In 1976, the national debt was $629 billion. Today, it exceeds $15 trillion. As our elected leaders continue spending more than the government takes in, a constitutional amendment looks like a fail-safe way to make them stop.

If only. One flaw is that it doesn't actually balance the budget. It merely requires Congress and the president to do so. But they can already do so -- and they consistently fail to get serious about the deficit even when they face a stark obligation.

Last summer, it was hitting the debt ceiling. This week, it was the automatic cuts that would take effect if the congressional supercommittee couldn't agree on ways to reduce the deficit, which it didn't. In both cases, fiscal irresponsibility triumphed.

The reason politicians don't balance the budget is that they and their constituents aren't ready for the unthinkable realities this option would entail: higher taxes, reduced government benefits or both. Those choices won't get any less excruciating if a balanced-budget amendment is ratified.

Given that reality, we could expect elected officials to find ways to evade the restriction. The amendment would allow a deficit if both houses agree by a three-fifths vote. Not only that, but a mere majority could authorize red ink when there is "a serious military threat to national security." And when is there not?

Even if Congress didn't suspend the requirement, it would have no trouble getting around it. What if it looks like you're going to run a deficit? You change your estimates to reduce your spending and boost your income. Voila! Deficit eliminated.

Or you put off spending until after the fiscal year ends, to balance this year's books. The Illinois state government has used this ploy for years, deferring pension contributions and making vendors wait months to be paid.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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