Inaction in the face of a $17 trillion debt by the federal government has prompted lawmakers from 29 states to call for a constitutional convention to pass a balanced budget amendment.
The U.S. flag is flown at half staff on the old Florida Capitol, Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Tallahassee, Fla (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
The list of lawmakers – all Republicans so far — includes state House speakers, Senate presidents and lieutenant governors, among others.
Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution allows for a constitutional convention to be convened if two-thirds of the states call for one. If a convention approves an amendment, three-fourths of the states must vote to adopt it into the Constitution.
Though this option has never been used for amending the Constitution, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell expects enough states to sign on within the next two years to force a convention. Traveling the state, she said she finds that most citizens are frustrated and disillusioned with the federal government.
“It's a house of cards. We can't go that way as a nation,” Harwell told TheBlaze, referring to federal spending. “In Tennessee, we live within our means and have a rainy day fund and fund our pension plan. But we have hanging over our heads the fiscally irresponsible federal government.”
The Tennessee legislature gave final approval last week to a resolution in favor of a convention.
Already, 22 state legislatures have passed resolutions supporting a convention to pass a balanced budget amendment through both chambers, according to the State Government Leadership Foundation, which is spearheading the Demand Balance Now initiative. Meanwhile, five states passed such legislation in one of their legislative chambers during this year's legislative session.
It takes 34 states to reach the magic two-thirds needed to call a convention of the states.
“The Constitution was an extremely well-thought out document. It gives the states – which created the federal government – the ability to reign in the federal government whenever it gets out of control,” said Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma. “Look at the indebtedness the federal government is leaving our children.”
Separate initiatives have passed both the House and the Senate in Indiana, Bosma said, but they were not reconciled by the end of the legislative session. The Indiana legislature did pass rules for appointing delegates to the convention and rules allowing the legislature to withdraw delegates.
Bosma called this an important first step to allay concerns that a convention would be a free-for-all. As for now, lawmakers are looking only at a balanced budget amendment and no other amendment.
“The biggest concerns many have about the conventions from people of all sides is this would be used to rewrite the Constitution. This would be for a balanced budget amendment only,” Bosma said. “The details of the plan for reducing the deficit will be left to Congress. This would just mandate that the budget be balanced.”
Bosma said the effort has been underway in Indiana since 2010. Meanwhile, some of the resolutions from the 22 states for a convention to pass a balanced budget amendment date back to the 1980s, according to the State Government Leadership Foundation.
Those resolutions still stand for a convention today because they have never been rescinded, Bosma said.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is also trying to push the effort.
“This is a legislative function, but as a former legislator and more importantly as a small-business owner, I know that you can't spend more than you make,” Kemp told TheBlaze. “States have to balance their budgets. We encourage the federal government to do the same.”
Congress has considered bills for a balanced budget amendment on numerous occasions over the decades, most recently in 2011 after Republicans gained control of the House. But the required two-thirds of the votes were never there.
“Congress could do it if they wanted to, but it's hard enough for them to pass a budget, much less a balanced budget amendment,” Kemp said. “But if enough states are on board, it will send a message to Congress. If they don't want it done this way, they should do it themselves.”
States that have taken action in both chambers of the legislatures to support a convention for a balanced budget amendment are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas, according to the State Government Leadership Foundation.
The movement for changing law through constitutional convention gained momentum after conservative talk radio host Mark Levin's “Liberty Amendments,” became a best-seller in 2013. The book's fifth chapter talks about constitutional amendments for improved fiscal responsibility.
Article 5 of the Constitution states: “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments...”
A Fox News poll last year found that 85 percent of voters believe the federal government should be required to balance its budget.
However, not all conservatives are on board with the idea of a constitutional convention. A 2011 assessment by Heritage Foundation and Evergreen Freedom Foundation scholars Matt Spalding and Trent England said state-led conventions would be no silver bullet for problems facing the country and could be unpredictable.
“The lack of precedent, extensive unknowns, and considerable risks of an Article V amendments convention should bring sober pause to advocates of legitimate constitutional reform contemplating this avenue,” the report said. “We are not prepared to encourage state governments at this time to apply to Congress to call an amendments convention.”
But the same assessment went on to state, “advocating an Article V convention as part of a state-based strategy to press Congress to pass a constitutional amendment is not unreasonable. Precisely because of the potential chaos of the process."
The report gave the example of threat of a constitutional convention in the progressive era forcing Congress to vote on the direct election of senators.
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