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"I agree ... that the drive for a constitutional convention to balance the budget threatens a constitutional crisis. It should be avoided at almost any cost.”

Sounds like another pointy-headed liberal playing Horatio at the bridge on behalf of big government.

In fact, it was John Stennis, the senior senator from Mississippi, who is so conservative he favors a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.

If that sounds anomalous, there is an explanation: As a conservative, Stennis believes the amendment process must proceed as it always has, through congressional initiative and subsequent ratification by the states.

"No," the governor was saying the other day when asked about the merits of a budget-balancing amendment, "I don't think it would be right to have something in the Constitution that would prevent the country from acting forcibly if other things dveloped.

"If it were in the Constitution, it would give us nothing to turn to if a recession should make federal action necessary. The way things are now has served as well for some time.”

Sounds like another version of the classic liberal line.

In fact, it was Massachusetts' own Edward J. King in a conversation during the recent National Governors Association meeting here, a man whose sternly conservative views on state tax and spending limitations helped elect him in 1978.

Indeed, this is one rare major issue on which he and the state's lieutenant governor, Thomas P. O'Neill 3d, are united. O'Neill feels so strongly about it that with the quiet encouragement and support of the White House and congressional leaders, he is organizing a national coalition to fight both a convention and the amendment itself.

The views of Stennis and King are illustrative of an important facet of this political tussle—things aren't at all what they seem.

The constitutional convention described almost daily as simply a few state votes from reality is in fact nowhere near it.

Moreover, very few of the 50-odd resolutions and petitions extant on the subject actually involve “balance.” Most of them, including those with the widest followings, are much tamer or infinitely more restrictive.

And now there is a new wrinkle--a counterattack against the whole idea. President Jimmy Carter has set up a working group composed of his own and Vice President Walter F. Mondale's aides; they are in regular touch with congressional leaders, above all the office of House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.; and both of these operations have a loose but clear link to the effort O'Neill's son is organizing from Massachusetts.

What will actually happen from now on is impossible to predict, but, in barely a month, this counterattack has produced the spreading realization that there is infinitely more to this fight than keeping score on which states have "called for" a constitutional convention.

It is perhaps best to begin with Article Five of the US Constitution, which established the two procedures for amendment. One is the route that has been followed on all 26 current amendments-adoption by a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress, followed by ratification by three-fourths of the states.

The other route has been tried before, but never successfully. Here's what the constitution says about it:

“The Congress...on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments which ... shall be valid to all intents and purposed as part of this constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states or by convention in three-fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress ...'

It doesn't sound all that complex. The required number of applications is 34. Right now there are 28, and Indiana is widely assumed to be on the verge of making it 29. That would leave just five more to be obtained, following which the call for convention would issue.

That widely held view, however, neatly sidesteps a few questions.

What, for example, constitutes a valid “application”? Must the required twothirds of them be uniform as to content and method of adoption?

And what of the “call” Congress is required to issue? How specific should it be or not be? Can a convention be limited to consideration of one topic or even one specific proposal?

Finally, is it proper to speak of the 28 states now in the Yes column as a group? Since many have conditioned their applications on the failure of Congress to act first, aren't invalid while the Senate and House are considering amendment proposal, as they now are?

These questions don't come from thin air. When Carter set up his White House working group, one of its first acts was to ask for a legal memorandum from one of the Harvard Law School better-known constitutional scholars, Laurence Tribe, a committed foe of convention and amendment alike.

Versions of them showed up in his memo, which he revised for public release last month in the form of testimony before the California State Assembly. That body rejected a call for convention, requesting instead action by Congress, to the considerable chagrin of the state's governor and semi-presidential candidate, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, Jr.

They are not just questions, moreover. Sources involved in the effort Lt. Gov. O'Neill has begun, said last week that active consideration is being given to constitutional challenges at virtually every step of the process, if necessary.

Moreover, sources close to proponent groups say they, too, have thought of constitutional challenges to actions Congress might take with regard to a convention that they would deem excessively restrictive.

And, further complicating things, the only universally acknowledged words of guidance on this topic are those of the Constitution itself. Though proposals have been made over the years, Congress has never legislated any rules for a statesinitiated convention.

“What people have totally failed to realize is that this isn't idle constitutional chatter," one source in the opponents' camp said. “We're talking about fights that could easily before the courts for years."

In part, this legal mess reflects the lack of uniformity and specificity in the campaign for a "balanced” federal budget. It is totally different from all other previous attempts to force constitutional conventions.

Just since 1960, for example, all the attempts have constituted efforts to reverse specific US Supreme Court decisions—banning prayer in public schools, requiring legislative and US House districts to be apportioned on a "one man-one vote" principle, prohibiting state laws banning all abortions, and upholding use of busing and race-based assignment in carrying out school desegregation orders.

In every case, the proponents were after something quite precise, and there was never much doubt at the time that if they got 34 states a convention would have to be called.

Things are completely different this time around. Not only is there no uniformity in the applications thus far approved by the states, there is also no consensus around a definition of "balance" or the method that should be enshrined in the Constitution to achieve and maintain it. In addition, the effort is unique in its attempt to add to the Constitution a concept which the existing document does not prohibit.

Just to give three examples of applications included in the current total of 28: the one approved by the Nevada legislature was vetoed by the governor, the one from Iowa is conditional on Congress having failed to act first by July of 1980; and the one from Delaware is conditional on 33 other states approving language identical to its, which none so far has done.

As to the issue of specificity, the evidence is in the more than 50 proposals currently filed with Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee began constitutional amendment hearings earlier this month; its House counterpart will follow suit shortly.

Some of the resolutions simply require balance, that is that spending in any fiscal year not exceed revenues. As with virtually all proposals an exception is provided for undefined “emergencies.”

Upon declaration by the President that one exists, a vote by two-thirds or three fourths of each House of Congress could suspend the requirement for a given year.

Ironically it is this kind of "pure” proposal that sources on both sides say is least likely to be approved. This is because of the nature of the budget-making process, which is far from widely understood.

Every January, a President announces his administration's estimate of revenues for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, along with detailed spending proposals. The Congress then takes over, setting its own overall revenue estimates and spending targets, and enacting appropriation bills within them.

Once the fiscal year actually begins, anything can happen and often does. In a half-trillion-dollar government all that is needed is for the unemployment rate to be one percentage point above the expected level, and a balanced budget goes $20 billion into the red as a result of lower revenues and higher mandatory spending for things like jobless benefits.

In other words, a balanced budget, even during a slight economic downturn, would require the constant lopping off through a year of already budgeted spending.

An idea with a growing following, and presented this year by Sen. Stennis, has been called the "pay as you go" approach.

Within 20 days of the end of each fiscal year, the President must report on the actual receipts and expenditures for the period. Then, if there is a deficit, he must-except in a declared "grave national emergency"-set whatever percentage surtax on personal and corporate incomes is necessary to wipe it out.

If the balanced budget proposals have anything in common it is that they don't specifically require that the federal government become any smaller or take a lower share of the national income in taxes. The possibility would always exist that future political generations would opt for higher spending and taxes.

For this reason, many conservatives oppose the approach, and none is more prominent than the Nobel economics laureat, Milton Friedman.

A prime mover behind an ad hoc group called The National Tax Limitation Committee, Friedman has backed a constitutional amendment covering two primary situations—when inflation is three percent or less, and when it is more.

In the former case, spending could rise by no more than the previous year's increase in the gross national product. In the latter situation, an extremely complex formula would limit the rise to something less.

This would involve a great deal more than budget-balancing. It would constitute nothing less than the elevation of conservative economic doctrine to the status of constitutional law.

According to the committee's own estimates of impact, if the proposal had been in effect since 1969, the actual budget deficit last year of $48.8 billion would have been a required surplus of $39.9 billion.

Much more revealing is the impact on spending. In 1978, the government spent $461.2 billion. If the committee's proposal had been part of the Constitution, it could only have spent $362.1 billion.

Just what that means can be seen from a few additional numbers. In 1978, the government spent $105.2 billion on the military, $92.2 billion on Social Security payments to the elderly, and $25.2 billion on Medicare payments for the elderly.

Assume for a second that these politically near-sacrosanct efforts had been permitted to reach these levels even with the amendment in the Constitution. That means the government could not have done nearly 50 percent of what it did do in all activities last year.

Roughly $100 billion would have come out of such hides as veterans benefits, aid to state and local government, price supports to farmers, housing programs, highway programs and welfare.

This much is clear after two months of debate: This fight is not nearing its climax; it has in fact barely begun.

(From the Washington Post, Mar. 28, 1979)



(By Edward Walsh) President Carter has denounced calls for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget as “political gimmickry” that would be of no help in efforts to reduce the budget deficit.

The president, who earlier had criticized the proposed amendment in generally mild terms, made his stronger views known in a letter to Vern Riffe, speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. The letter, a response to Riffe's request for Carter's views on the subject, was made public yesterday by the White House.

Release of the letter suggested that after an initially cautious approach, the president is now anxious to take on personally one of his chief Democratic Party rivals, California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., on an issue of Brown's own choosing. Brown, who is expected to challenge Carter next year for the presidential nomination, is an advocate of the balanced-budget amendment and of a constitutional convention to adopt such a law if Congress doesn't act. The president called the convention idea that has been pushed by Brown a "radical and

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unprecedented action" that "might do serious, irrevocable damage to the Constitution.”

Such a convention is not worth the risk of an attempt to rewrite whole sections of the Constitution, Carter said, “particularly when the expressed purpose of the convention would be to consider an amendment as flawed and harmful as one mandating a balanced federal budget.”

An amendment that provided "sufficient exemptions” to deal with possible economic and national security emergencies would be so long and complicated that it "would truly be a sham,” the president argued. And in that event, he said, crucial budget decisions might be left to “the interpretation of a mathematical formula or economic statistics by a computer analyst or other unidentifiable federal bureaucrat.

“In short,” the president said, “any amendment would either be so filled with loopholes as to be meaningless or so rigid as to tie the nation's hands in time of war or depression. I have yet to see proposed constitutional language which does not run one of these dangers. Nor do I expect to see such language because I do not believe it can be written."

Twenty-eight states thus far have enacted measures mandating a constitutional convention to write a balanced-budget amendment. The Ohio House has not acted on the issue, according to the National Taxpayers Union, which supports the convention proposal. Approval by 34 states would, under the Constitution, force Congress to call the convention.

The White House has organized a task force, directed by Richard Moe, Vice President Mondale's chief of staff, to combat the convention proposal in state legislatures around the country. White House political aides believe Brown made a serious mistake, which could haunt him next year, in his advocacy of the balanced-budget amendment and the convention proposals. But until now, the president's involvement and rhetoric have been muted.

Carter promised in his 1976 election campaign to balance the federal budget by the end of his term. He long ago abandoned that pledge. In his letter to Riste, he said he will attempt to eliminate the federal deficit through "prudent, responsible and equitable spending reductions.”

Two of the nation's most prominent economists cautioned Congress yesterday to go slow on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget as the House Judiciary Committee opened hearings on the issue.

Arthur F. Burns, former Federal Reserve Board chairman and, before that, chief economic adviser to President Eisenhower, told the committee that while he favored the principle of requiring a balanced budget, he was also mindful of the practical difficulties of putting it into the Constitution.

If this document of fundamental principle should become a "textbook on public finance,” he said, "novel fiscal devices” to get around it would be spawned. He suggested that Congress begin mandating a balanced budget by statute and, if that works, perhaps add it to the Constitution in a few years.

Paul Samuelson, Nobel laureate in economic science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said economics is too inexact a science on which to bases constitutional amendment. “It will be much harder to get out of the mess you make than to get in," he said. Also, it would be a sad day, he said, if “rhetorical flourishes” are added to the Constitution and become dead words such as the guarantees of free speech in the Soviet constitution.

(From the Washington Post, Mar. 29, 1979)

(By Mary Russell) The Carter administration continued its campaign against a constitutional amendment to balance the budget yesterday as Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told a House subcommittee such an amend. ment would have turned the 1974–75 recession into "the first real depression since the 1930s."

If a balanced budget requirement was in place in 1974 "huge expenditures euts would have been required and ... unemployment would have skyrocketed," Schultze said.

He said estimates made from three econometric models showed the gross national product would have dropped 12 percent below the 1973 level, unemployment in 1975 would have risen to 12 percent and spending cuts of $50 billion in fiscal '75 and $100 billion in fiscal '76 would have been necessary.

Schultze's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee was part of a stepped-up campaign by the White House to head off the balanced budget drive which has now been endorsed in some form by 29 states. President Carter has already sent a letter to the Ohio state legislature asking them not to endorse such a proposal.

Freezing "a particular economic policy that may happen to fit the needs of the moment” into the Constitution makes as much sense as writing into the Constitution “a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit law, a 65-degree thermostat setting, a value-added tax or a prohibition on alcohol,” Schultze said.

Schultze declined to endorse passage of any law, constitutional or otherwise, requiring a balanced budget.

But Schultze said Congress has in place a budget process that would allow it to balance the budget right now if Congress had the will. Though the budget act could be improved upon, no further laws were needed, he said.

Despite what Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D.N.J.) called “the ballyhoo" over a balanced budget, no more than 25 people were in the committee room for Schultze's testimony, and only slightly more than that attended a morning session at which former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Alan Greenspan and James Dale Davidson, chairman of the National Taxpayers Union, testified.

Greenspan endorsed a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses to pass money bills. In the meantime Greenspan said he would support legislation doing the same thing to fill the five to seven-year gap that might be required to get approval of a constitutional amendment.

Davidson endorsed a balanced budget amendment that would include a provision to set aside the requirement in times of emergencies.

He said nothing short of a constitutional amendment would stop Congress from voting for deficits which he said are in the political self-interest of members of Congress.

(From the Wall Street Journal, Apr. 4, 1979)


(By Robert H. Bork) The most, and perhaps only, beneficial aspect of the rising number of states calling for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is that it may force Congress to some useful political response to heavy taxation, high spending, and double-digit inflation-problems, in one way or another, of Congress' own making.

The initiative of the states raises two specters. The first-a balanced federal budget, no matter what-seems a thoroughly primitive notion. Its inadequacies have been thoroughly discussed on this page. The second specter is that the state initiatives necessarily call for a convention, but a convention called under Article V of the Constitution, according to much responsible scholarship, cannot have its agenda restricted either by Congress or by the form of the state demands. It can consider and propose anything, and “anything” is an apt description of what a lot of organized groups would fight for.

Liberals and conservatives alike shun the convention, each supposing, with some objective evidence in support, that the Republic is currently in short supply of Madisons and Washingtons and not wishing to learn who their modern replacements might turn out to be. Whatever the merits of this dismal view of the nation's political talent and the electorate's good sense, the aversion to a general constitutional convention is surely sound. The continual reexamination of basic principles is a very bad political habit and one not to be encouraged. A constitutional convention ought to be the last resort of a foundering nation, not the casual practice of a successful one.

But specters have their virtues, and this pair may impel Congress to consider proposing a more responsible constitutional approach. It will have before it a proposal drafted by the National Tax Limitation Committee, whose best-known

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