WASHINGTON — Battling their own urges to spend, members of Congress are again considering the fiscal restraint of last resort--a balanced-budget amendment. The idea is: If you run a deficit, you violate the U.S. Constitution.
With a balanced-budget amendment, supporters say, Congress and the President will be intimidated into spending no more than the government earns.
"The allegation that you have violated the Constitution is a serious political liability," said Marlo Lewis, a research director for Citizens Against Government Waste, a private watchdog group that monitors government spending. "No politician wants to be stuck with that."
THE PROPOSAL: To amend the Constitution, two-thirds of the state legislatures must call for a constitutional convention to discuss the matter or two-thirds of both houses of Congress must pass a bill proposing an amendment. In either case, a proposed amendment goes to the state legislatures, becoming law only after three-fourths support it.
Now, balanced-budget proposals are traveling the state legislative and congressional routes. Congressional hopes are pinned this year on a bill sponsored by Sens. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
It has six main provisions:
* The President must submit a balanced budget to Congress each year.
* Congress may not spend more than the government makes unless three-fifths of the members of each house elect to do so by a roll-call vote.
* Congress may not raise the limit on the national debt unless a three-fifths majority in each house agrees in a roll-call vote.
* Congress may raise taxes by a simple majority, but again, both houses must do so in a roll-call vote.
* The bill may be fleshed out by auxiliary legislation that lays out deficit targets for the years preceding its 1999 implementation.
* In the case of war or a "military conflict which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security," the amendment may be waived.
Simon concedes that passage will be difficult. Last year, the legislation ran into stone walls in the form of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.). It also is opposed by President Clinton, who views it as fiscally unsound. But it has some unexpected supporters, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.).
A proposal similar to the congressional plan has floated about the country's statehouses for the last 20 years. Twenty-nine states--not including California--so far have joined the call for a constitutional convention to debate a balanced-budget amendment. Activists say they hope that New Jersey will join the roster soon, leaving the proposal four states short.
THE CONTROVERSY: Balanced-budget amendment supporters warn that lawmakers have resisted fiscal responsibility thus far and will continue to do so if they are not restrained.
Although many amendment opponents agree that the current level of spending saddles future generations with too much debt, they insist that forcing the country to meet yearly balanced-budget requirements ignores the need for government spending to match the vagaries of the fluctuating economy.
"A 12-month period bears no relation to economic cycles--it's very arbitrary," said Robert Shapiro, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute--a liberal Washington think tank--and a longtime adviser to Clinton. If the economy fell again into a prolonged recession, Shapiro said, a balanced-budget requirement would push the economy into further trouble by preventing the kind of stimulus, deficit spending that might be necessary to induce growth.
Some balanced-budget amendment bills introduced last year allowed Congress to waive their requirements in the event of economic emergency, but the new bill contains no such clause.