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Balanced Budget Needed, but Who Is Willing to Pay? : It seems like everyone wants to cut the deficit on someone else’s back. An amendment would force legislators to make the hard choices.

<i> Alan B. Ungar is a financial planner in Calabasas and Valley chairman of the Concord Coalition</i>

If you think Congress is going to have the courage to balance the budget without a balanced budget amendment--forget it. This message rang loud and clear at the Concord Coalition’s Debtbuster 2000 workshop in Calabasas earlier this month.

The Concord Coalition, in which I am active, is a nonpartisan group whose sole objective is a zero federal budget deficit by 2000. Periodically we educate the public by holding workshops at which participants, working in small groups, pretend to be members of Congress, making the hard choices necessary to balance the budget.

The “debtbusters” who attended the workshop were told by the facilitator to pretend that they were Congress, and that if they wanted to get reelected they had to cut $750 billion of the deficit over a five-year period. They broke into groups, were given real choices from the Congressional Budget Office and spent almost four hours dealing with the same decisions Congress will have to make.

These Valleyites were committed to getting rid of the deficit--in theory. However, when push came to shove and their own special interests were threatened, the answer was consistently no!

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For example, a young, well-educated aerospace engineer named Lawrence was convinced that he and his kids stand to suffer greatly because of the deficit. But his resolve evaporated when a proposal to cut $21 billion out of the Air Force budget was put on the table. He announced to his group that if they accepted the proposal, he likely would lose his job. The group responded with a tie vote, and the cut was rejected. Reducing ballistic-missile spending by $18.5 billion was easier, since evidently nobody at the table was directly affected.

And there was Lewis, a successful manufacturer of toys, who argued against a 5% value-added tax which would have produced $319.5 billion in federal revenue because he feared it would ruin his company’s sales. Once again a tie vote killed the proposal. But there were no smokers at his table, which voted unanimously to raise $81.4 billion in revenue by increasing the excise tax on tobacco and alcohol.

It was clear to the participants that they could not balance the budget without cutting spending on entitlements and raising revenue. Congress and President Clinton know this too, but instead of raising revenue they are offering to cut taxes. Instead of seriously looking at cutting entitlements, both parties have taken them off the table.

If our participants could not bring themselves to adopt painful measures in a workshop, how can we possibly expect Congress, or the public that elects it, to make the tough decisions when it really counts?

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Nothing significant will be done until Congress has the protection of a balanced budget amendment. Neither party will commit political suicide by being forthright about the really difficult choices required. We cannot expect members of Congress to sacrifice their own well-being if we are not willing to sacrifice some of our own. Only when something like the balanced budget amendment forces us will we accept the kinds of decisions that are necessary.

Here in the Valley, Reps. Henry Waxman, Howard Berman and Anthony Beilenson are against the amendment. Beilenson’s objection is that it will take seven years to ratify the amendment and that will just delay taking the serious steps that have to be taken. Perhaps so, but it is time to stop this kind of smoke screen and get the job done!

The House last week passed one of several versions of a balanced budget amendment. At all cost, we must avoid passing a version with loopholes that render it meaningless.

Some lawmakers hope to exempt Social Security from a budget amendment. How can this huge expense possibly be made off-limits? It can’t.

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The “Contract With America” calls for a constitutional requirement for a three-fifths congressional vote to increase taxes. But future generations should be asking, why not have a three-fifths vote to lower taxes, since we are the ones who will have to pay for today’s fiscal irresponsibility? Tax changes should be possible through a simple majority vote. The three-fifths requirement is too constraining, so I’m glad the House version did not have it.

Some critics have attacked a section of the principal proposed amendment that allows for an excess of outlays over receipts for specific items, with a three-fifths vote. They call it a loophole. I don’t agree. I think it would provide the flexibility needed for capital expenditures or unspecified emergencies. The three-fifths requirement--and the concomitant press coverage--would make exceptions difficult to pass, though not impossible.

Happily, some version of a balanced budget amendment seems sure to pass. With timely ratification, Congress will be required to confront the American public with the minor sacrifices needed now to enable our children and grandchildren to enjoy the American Dream.

The most consistent family value we have had is our desire to take care of our children and our grandchildren. Those of us who are over 50 know what our parents did for us. They worked hard, saved, educated us and did whatever they could to make our standard of living better than theirs. Today, while that standard still exists, it rests on a shaky foundation. Our need for immediate gratification, our appetite for credit card spending and our lack of concern about the future all jeopardize our children’s security.

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The balanced budget amendment is a major step in getting us back on track to help our kids.


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