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From the archives: Avoiding tough budget decisions

Published: Wednesday, July 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Editor's note: The following is a reprint of the Deseret News editorial from Feb. 8, 1997, just before Congress began debate on a balanced budget amendment. Although a few of the particulars have changed, the basic issues and argument are as relevant today as they were 14 years ago.

The rhetoric, posturing and pontificating over a balanced-budget amendment are about to begin again. How ironic, considering Congress and the president already have the power to pass a balanced budget. All they lack is the will.

Hidden deep inside this debate is an insulting reality. Those who were elected to make the difficult decisions of democracy would rather that an arbitrary task-master - a constitutional requirement - force them to act.But the decisions involved wouldn't become any easier. Forget the amendment. Just balance the budget.

Throughout much of the nation's history, budget deficits followed a pattern. They appeared and grew during times of recession or war, then shrank and disappeared during times of peace and plenty. That pattern disappeared in recent decades as entitlement programs took root and began an uncontrolled growth like a springtime bed of thorny weeds.

To chop the weeds at this point would bring pain, and pain is something politicians would like to avoid. Already, critics say the amendment proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is too onerous because it wouldn't protect Social Security, a program that is projected to collect far more than it expends for the next several years before it begins running huge deficits.

Social Security makes up about one-fourth of the all government expenditures, excluding interest payments on the debt. To say the budget can be balanced without cutting Social Security would be a lie. One could just as easily cut the branches off a tree without disturbing the leaves. The fact that some are lobbying to exempt this program from an amendment shows Congress is far from getting serious about the task at hand.

Social Security isn't the only touchy obstacle. Advocates of a balanced budget would have to get used to the idea of massive cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, as well.

The day rapidly is approaching when entitlement programs grow to consume all federal revenues. If that happens, politicians won't be able to escape the difficult decisions, and the American people aren't likely to view this generation of congressional leadership with much affection.

This page has consistently urged for a balanced budget. But the balance must come through leadership and through intelligent, practical cuts, not through the arbitrary ax of an amendment.

An amendment would hamper the government's ability to return to its previous pattern of running deficits in times of war or recession. Although the proposed amendment would allow Congress to override its requirements, political considerations may come in the way of practical necessities in times of emergency.

Last year's budget showdown was seen by many as a disaster — a political train wreck with few survivors. In reality, it was democracy at work. The Founding Fathers created a system in which ideologies and philosophies often collide, with little more than statesmanship, debate, political maneuvering and popular will to pull them apart.

In a free and open society, government is not supposed to be efficient. It is supposed to be representative and fair. A balanced budget amendment wouldn't be medicine for a nation in need of leadership. It would be a placebo.

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