States Can Seek Constitutional Amendment to End Federal Debt Binge

September 20, 2010

Contributed by Nick Dranias (Goldwater Institute)

As our national debt rockets past $13 trillion, just imagine if a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget had been ratified 25 years ago. That almost happened. During the 1980s, 33 state legislatures invoked their power to apply for a convention to draft a balanced budget amendment. The effort fell short by just one state of the two-thirds majority needed to force Congress’ hand to call the convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.

Why did the effort fail? Fears about a “runaway” convention won the debate. Some legislators worried that a convention would not be limited to a specific subject and it would spin out of control to rewrite the entire Constitution. Sadly, this fear was baseless.

A new Goldwater Institute report, written by Senior Fellow Robert Natelson, shows the country’s Founders rejected drafts of Article V that contemplated a wide-open convention that could “run away.” Instead, the authors of the Constitution intentionally picked language that calls for conventions of limited scope so state legislatures could target specific topics, such as a restriction on the federal government’s ability to borrow money. There’s also no reason to fear a “runaway” convention because three-fourths of the states – at least 38 of them – still would have to ratify whatever proposed amendment was drafted by the convention.

State Senator Chuck Gray of Arizona and U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas are right to urge state legislatures to reconsider invoking Article V to limit the federal government’s ability to take on more debt. No matter who controls Congress, the federal government has been incapable of putting its fiscal house in order. Article V gives the states the power to end the federal debt binge.

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