By BARRY POULSON
It has been more than three quarters of a century since the first balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed in Congress; and it has been more than half a century since the first resolution calling for an Article V convention to propose a balanced budget amendment was first introduced in the state legislatures. Despite many failures there is a new battle in the states to impose this fiscal discipline on the federal government, and this time is different.
This month Georgia became the 21st state with an active resolution calling for an Article V convention to propose a balanced budget amendment. Similar resolutions have been introduced in more than a dozen states in the current legislative session, including Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Article V Caucus comprising 79 legislators from 29 states has formed to plan an Article V convention.
State legislators have rightly concluded that they can no longer wait for Congress to propose a balanced budget amendment. The only tool that Congress has left to constrain spending is the requirement to approve an increase in the
limit. But Congress recently approved an increase in the debt limit by stripping out all amendments that would have deceased spending, including a modest proposal to change the way the federal government calculates the consumer price index. Congressional approval of increases in the debt limit has become a pro forma exercise.
The Congressional Budget Office projects that under current law over the next 25 years federal spending will increase to 36 percent of national income. The increased deficits and debt that accompany this spending will result in retardation and stagnation in economic growth that will make it virtually impossible to balance the budget.
A balanced budget amendment would impose the fiscal discipline
to constrain federal spending, but would not require a reduction in federal spending. A balanced budget would only require that spending as a share of national income be gradually reduced to the historic level of revenue as a share of national income, something less than 20 percent. A balanced budget would be accompanied by restoration in economic growth and a sustainable fiscal
Balancing the federal budget is a formidable task, but one that is feasible if we act now. If we wait another decade to constrain spending the task of balancing the federal budget becomes insurmountable. By then the economy will be stagnating; and eliminating deficits will require that federal spending be cut in half, something that will never happen.
State legislators know that they have a small window of opportunity to constrain federal spending and reverse this retardation in economic growth. Their strategy is to enact balanced budget resolutions in the requisite two third state legislatures, and then to mobilize grass roots support in the states for ratification. Recent polls show that 74 percent of Americans support a balanced budget amendment to the constitution, bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats.
Opponents of the state balanced budget resolutions argue that there is no way to limit an amendment convention to the single subject of a balanced budget. However, state legislators are addressing this fear of a 'runaway convention' by enacting a companion bill referred to as the 'delegate limitation act'. The 'delegate limitation act' requires that delegates to the amendment convention consider only the single subject of a balanced budget amendment, and subjects them to recall and penalties if they fail to follow these instructions. Two states have enacted the delegate limitation act, Georgia, and Indiana; another seven states have introduced the legislation, including Idaho, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Ratification of the balanced budget amendment requires approval by three fourths of the states, providing another safeguard against a 'runaway convention'.
The grass roots supporters of the balanced budget amendment reveal that their greater concern today is a runaway Congress, not a runaway amendment convention. Citizens are concerned about the overreach of the federal government in many areas from health care to regulatory activity. It is not surprising that state legislators have introduced other resolutions calling for an Article V convention to impose a broader set of constraints on the federal government beyond a balanced budget amendment.
Resolutions calling for a broader based Article V convention have been introduced in thirteen states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. However, there is a growing consensus among the supporters of these resolutions that first proposing a balanced budget amendment is a winning strategy. There is a high probability that proponents of the balance budget amendment will gain the support from additional states required to reach the requisite two thirds over the next several legislative sessions. A successful Article V convention to propose a balanced budget amendment would then set a precedent for subsequent amendment conventions.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789: "I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government; I mean an additional article taking from the federal government the power of borrowing". The founding fathers anticipated that federal legislators might be unwilling or unable to amend the constitution in the national interest when it conflicted with their self interest. They incorporated Article V to give state legislators an alternative route for what they referred to as an 'amendment of errors'. In taking the initiative to propose an Article V convention to propose a balanced budget amendment state legislators are fulfilling this Jeffersonian vision of the Constitution. This battle for a balanced budget amendment is different than the earlier battles waged in Congress.
Barry Poulson is a Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado (Ret.) and Co-founder of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force