WASHINGTON — For a decade now, the proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution and require a balanced federal budget has enjoyed enough popular and political appeal to hoist it almost--but never quite--to the top of the national agenda.
Now, once again, while the best minds argue about whether it is a simple or merely simple-minded solution to runaway deficits, the tripwires are set across the political landscape that could send this would-be 27th Amendment to the Constitution exploding into a full-blown national debate.
Perhaps, even, it could move an uncertain nation toward its first national constitutional convention since the original one in 1787.
In Michigan, the state Legislature reconvenes next month and supporters of the balanced budget amendment have pinned their hopes on winning approval of a resolution calling for such an amendment. If successful, the amendment would be only one state short of the 34 required to force Congress into action.
Meanwhile, with its recent budget struggles under attack as inadequate and the annual federal deficit again climbing toward $1,000 per capita, Congress also reconvenes next month with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) promising a strong push for a balanced budget amendment. President Reagan is cheering him on.
It is a story told in dramatic ironies and with unsettling warnings.
Why, for instance, has the President, as one of the original and foremost advocates of a balanced budget amendment, never submitted a balanced budget but instead presided over record deficits and the accumulation of $1 trillion or so of national debt?
And what does one make of the cry of alarm from James Dale Davidson, founder of the National Taxpayers Union, that today's high school graduate will have to pay $10,000 in additional taxes over the next 50 years just to cover the interest on the 1985 deficit, not counting the principal or debt for other years?
The responses, to a large extent, are a matter of one's point of view. Reagan has not submitted a balanced budget, it is said, because Congress would not pass one--so pick your villain. And, yes, most agree the deficit is bad and bodes darkly for the future.
But disagreement is sharp over whether it has been big enough for long enough to justify tinkering with the basic document of nationhood. There is also broad disagreement over whether the amendment would really do what its drafters intended.
Nor is there one single amendment; proponents--and state legislatures down through the years--have advocated different versions of such a constitutional proposal--which further muddies not only the substantive debate but the political and legal situations as well.
But one thing seems sure: momentum for an amendment has increased as the deficit has come to relentlessly dominate the government.
"In my more cynical moments, I think that the deficit is President of the United States," Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) ruminated in a speech in Minneapolis.
"It, more than Ronald Reagan, has and will produce a revolution in the shape of the federal government. . . . And it is not just the programs we are cutting. The deficit has also kept us from doing anything new for a whole decade."
What drives the taxpayer union's Davidson to push for a constitutional amendment is his view that Reagan and Congress will do little more than talk about curbing the national debt. To Davidson, the federal government perceives the deficit "the way a hillbilly looks at a hole in the roof. When the sun is shining, he asks, 'Why bother fixing it?' And when the hailstorm comes, he says, 'It's too dangerous to go out there.' "
Curbing Growth of Taxes
The constitutional amendment pushed by Davidson, Dole, Reagan and conservatives across the land would not just call for a balanced budget but also would permanently limit the growth in annual tax revenues to no more than "the rate of increase in national income," which is a statistic the government calculates every year to measure the annual total earnings of the nation.
By pegging total federal revenue to that measure, amendment advocates hope to prevent inflation from pushing taxpayers into higher tax brackets and thus silently raising government revenues. Only a specific vote of Congress for a tax increase could change that.
What this would mean, proponents say, is that federal government's share of the national economic output would remain steady.
A second version of a balanced budget amendment is pending in Congress, calling for receipts and outlays to be balanced but without any restriction on taxes.
Missouri Vote Recalled
The political situation is this: No state has voted for a balanced budget amendment backed by the threat of a constitutional convention since Missouri did in 1983, according to the taxpayers' union.