SENATE REJECTION of Bob Dole's last-hurrah attempt to clutter up the Constitution with a Balanced Budget Amendment gives the prospective Republican presidential nominee the campaign issue he desired. But little else. Congress is still left with the task of what it would have to do even if the amendment were adopted. It still has to slash spending and/or increase revenues if the goal professed by both parties to balance the budget by 2002 is to be achieved.
Actually, this short-term target is attainable. President Clinton's economic policies and cost-cutting by the Republican majority in Congress have combined to halve the deficit from $287 billion to $144 billion. Six-year plans by both parties to reduce the growth medical entitlements, welfare and other spending could -- if implemented -- achieve the stated objective.
The Congressional Budget Office is fairly optimistic about the deficit outlook for the next decade, even with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security costs on the rise. Economic growth is steady and sustainable; inflation is low; the era of big government is over. Its real concern is the long-term budget outlook when Baby Boomers start to retire in a dozen years.
At that point deficits and federal outlays as a percent of the gross domestic product start to soar on a frightening trajectory that will require drastic action contemporary politicians would rather not contemplate. Hence, all the political oratory in the 1996 election campaign is focusing on the next six years when relatively minor adjustments can do the trick.
What has this to do with the Balanced Budget Amendment? Plenty.
Congress should not endorse an ostensible budget strait-jacket when the ultimate in flexibility will be needed as the number of senior citizens doubles and the number of working-age citizens goes up only 25 percent. Nor should Congress try to bamboozle the country into believing an amendment, by itself, will do anything for the long haul.
Now that the latest debate on this subject is history, let Congress get cracking on actual passage of a bipartisan balanced-budget plan for 2002. The sooner this is done, the easier things will be later. Changing demographics will be the fundamental catalyst in government policy for the 21st century.