Union leaders oppose balanced budget plan


WASHINGTON -- After the balanced budget amendment died in the Senate yesterday, federal workers may have been in the mood for a celebration. But the House still has to vote on the proposal that could cost government jobs.

"Personally, and from the union point of view, we think the balanced budget amendment is a very bad idea," said Alvin Levy, executive vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1923, which represents hundreds of Baltimore-area government workers.

"With a balanced budget amendment, the money would run out and federal workers would be forced out the door," echoed Gene Voegtlin, legislative liaison for the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE). "We're very concerned about the impact this would have on federal employees."

Government workers complain the amendment puts economic policy decisions on automatic pilot by forcing Congress and the president to conform to a rigid set of budget constraints that may result in cuts in social spending, federal jobs and salaries, retirement benefits and health care coverage, Mr. Levy said.

"To force the federal government to come up with a balanced budget could result in massive layoffs and cutbacks in the federal work force," he said. "And that would impact on overtime, travel, training, furniture acquisition and equipment. They would be cut to the bone."

But supporters argue the amendment is the least the federal government could do to start digging out from under massive debt. Since the last failed vote on the amendment in the Senate eight years ago, the federal deficit has grown by $2.4 trillion, they said.

The Senate defeated the amendment 63-37 yesterday. Maryland's two senators voted against it.

The proposal is expected to be voted on in the House in a few weeks, and most vote-counters expect it to get the necessary two-thirds approval. Republicans plan to demand that the Senate then hold a renewed debate, timed for impact in November's midterm congressional election.

Under the amendment, beginning in 2001, Congress would be forbidden from spending more money than the government takes in, except in wartime or when 60 percent of the House and Senate voted otherwise.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last month, top Clinton administration officials lambasted the amendment as reckless, particularly for federal workers.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala said the amendment could prompt massive personnel cuts in the Social Security Administration.

"We would have to reduce personnel by 18,000 positions and close a number of our local field offices," she told the committee. "The Social Security program right now has about 65,000 employees, so we're talking about a substantial reduction."

In the Baltimore area, SSA's 15,000 workers are a large contingent of Maryland's nearly 289,000 federal workers.

Critics of the amendment said also the Defense Department could be especially hard-hit. The department employs about 23,000 people in Maryland.

Defense Secretary William Perry said if the amendment were enacted, about 600,000 Defense Department personnel would lose their jobs, with between 30,000 and 125,000 of those workers coming from the civilian ranks.

"So it would be a dramatic effect, and that's just in the categories of people working actively for the Defense Department," he said at last month's hearing. "That does not count the civilians in industry, or the civilians that support the bases around the United States."

But opposition to the amendment should not be construed as a " willingness to allow out-of-control spending, Maryland's two Democratic senators said.

The government already is seeking to cut the federal work force by 252,000 and needs total control to continue to limit spending, but a balanced budget amendment could rush those decisions and lead to haphazard cuts, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said.

"A balanced budget amendment would put at risk commitments the federal government has made through Social Security and ** veteran's benefits," she said. "It's a radical approach that could lead to job losses and tax increases."

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said the amendment would create a "hollow law." Instead of tinkering with the Constitution, he urged the Senate to be vigilant in cutting the budget on its own.

"This amendment is yet another promise to do something about the deficit in the future, masquerading as a tough choice today," he said. "We do not need any more masquerades. We need to take the issue head on."

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