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Clinton not serious about ending deficit

If there is one thing that could convert me to support of the balanced-budget constitutional amendment, it is the way the Clinton administration is opposing it. The amendment, now under debate in the Senate, is a bad idea; the arguments the White House is using to try to defeat it are worse.

On the eve of the debate, the White House released a preposterous stack of paper, purporting to show how much each state would be hurt if the government were required to cut spending or raise taxes enough to bring the budget into balance.

"The balanced budget amendment would cost Arizona $2.6-billion to $2.8-billion a year," a typical page warned. Then it broke down that number into so many hundreds of dollars a person in tax increases, Social Security and Medicare cuts, etc.

The scare tactics are an abandonment by the White House of perfectly sound economic, legal and political arguments against a seriously flawed constitutional amendment. Worse, they make it seem as if Clinton is arguing against the desirability of balancing the budget.

Clinton and Congress made a good first step toward reducing deficits in last year's budget. With a healthy economy, the Clinton budget projects that deficits will fall from the $290-billion level of 1992 to about $165-billion in 1995. But then they start to climb again.

Last year, Clinton said the second stage of deficit reduction would come with health care reform. But the Congressional Budget Office has demonstrated that in the next decade, Clinton's health plan will boost government spending, not reduce it.

He is, quite simply, without any strategy for ever ending deficits _ even if the economy continues to prosper.

The White House pretends there is no problem in letting the deficits continue year after year. It is exactly this kind of delusional thinking that got us to a debt so huge that the interest bill each year now tops $200-billion and will rise by $10-billion each year under the Clinton budget.

Clinton wants to protect his "investment agenda" for such worthy goals as health care, education, job training and technology initiatives. That's fine. But as Robert J. Shapiro of the Progressive Policy Institute points out in a newly published report, those investments can and should be financed from the billions of dollars that are spent each year in tax loopholes and special-interest subsidies "that provide no economic benefit for the country." The report details dozens of such subsidies, offering $225-billion in potential five-year savings.

But Clinton's big hang-up is his reluctance to ask anything from middle-class voters.

The 4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax hike Congress approved last year was supposed to be the middle class' contribution to the 1993 deficit reduction package. But it has been offset by the collapse of the OPEC cartel. In many states, gasoline sells for less than $1 a gallon. Nationally, the Congressional Budget Office says, it cost 2 cents a gallon less this January than last. That's some sacrifice!

The most maddening thing about Clinton's refusal to submit a serious plan for eliminating the budget deficit is that it risks giving proponents of the balanced-budget amendment a victory they do not deserve. If this amendment passes the Senate with the required two-thirds vote, it will be hard to stop. And if it becomes law, a 40 percent minority in either house of Congress will forever enjoy veto power over future tax changes and spending programs.

Preventing that radical change in the fundamental workings of representative government is a damned sight more important than any of Clinton's short-term political needs. Senators who are uncommitted on this vote need to remind Clinton of history's priorities and use this opportunity to extract from the reluctant president a serious blueprint for a second stage of deficit reduction.

Washington Post Writers Group

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