Can states fix what Congress messed up?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Can the usual processes that created the $18 trillion national debt – now more than $57,000 for every American man, woman and child – also be used to pay it down?

If your answer is yes, then I encourage you to check the history books. Almost ever year since the nation was founded, the federal government has added to the national debt, and under current projections, the debt will grow bigger each year, year after year, as far as the eye can see.

It should be clear by now that our nation’s capital will not suddenly see the light of fiscal responsibility, so can anything be done to reverse the slide? Apparently not by Congress, so two separate national movements are attempting to amend the Constitution by employing a never-before-used process led by the states. Under Article 5 of the Constitution, 34 states can call a convention, which would then propose amendments that must be ratified by 38 of them.

One of those efforts, the Convention of the States, proposes an open-ended convention tasked with limiting the powers of the federal government, with suggested amendments that would require a balanced budget, enact term limits, redefine the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, etc. In Arkansas, supporters are considering two versions, according to one of its supporters, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville. He believes at least one will pass.

Nationwide, the effort faces a much steeper climb. The Convention of the States’ goals and its rhetoric are so conservative that it will have a tough time reaching 34 states, let alone 38. Also, the delegates would be free to propose whatever amendments they want, leading to fears of a “runaway convention.” Those fears are unfounded, because any proposed amendments still would require approval by 38 states. But the fear that something crazy might happen has cost the movement some allies.

The other effort, the Compact for a Balanced Budget, also is a long shot but would seem to have a better chance. Unlike the Convention of the States, the Compact proposes a single amendment. The amendment states that the government cannot spend more than it collects unless it borrows under a debt limit that can be increased only with approval by a majority of state legislatures. Also, all future tax increases would have to be passed by a two-thirds vote of Congress, though a majority vote could close loopholes or replace the income tax with a national sales tax.

With the Compact for a Balanced Budget, we know what we’re getting. The states that sign up agree to the wording upfront. The delegates would assemble, vote yes and go home.

Alaska and Georgia have already signed on as members of the Compact. Organizers see Arkansas as one of 30 other states they must have. Then they would have to sway six other states where passage would be harder.

In Arkansas, Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, pre-filed a Compact for a Balanced Budget bill before the legislative session began. He was one of the early supporters of the Convention of the States, and although he still favors it, he thinks this is a better way.

I like it, too, and not just because it has a better chance of passing. It creates a mechanism that helps Congress be more fiscally responsible. It gives states the ability to rein in Washington. It makes it hard for Congress to raise taxes, but not impossible, particularly not by closing some of the loopholes that riddle the tax code.

Bell, who is on the Compact for a Balanced Budget’s national board, plans to push his bill, HB1006, later in the session. Will it pass? It depends on a lot of factors. Legislators, including Bell and Ballinger, have a lot on their plates as they consider thousands of bills in three months’ time.

One of those is the Revenue Stabilization Act, passed each session since 1945. Because of that act, Arkansas has a mechanism in place to produce a balanced budget – which is one of the main reasons the state, unlike the federal government, always has one.

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