Can states save the federal government?

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

Common Core cover cutoutThe thing about human nature is that we resist the big change until there’s a crisis, even though we know a crisis is inevitable if we stick with the status quo.

It often takes a diagnosis for us to quit smoking or change our diets. Some alcoholics must lose everything before they’ll finally seek help.

On the other hand, some people do make lifestyle changes before they absolutely must. Can a society do the same?

On March 2, the national debt stood at $18,149,954,531,765.07, according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s website. That’s $57,000 per American.

The government has been in debt since 1835, but the numbers have been soaring lately. It took two centuries to reach $1 trillion in 1980 and then 35 years to add $17 trillion to that.

There have been a few years when the government did not add to the debt, but not many. Debt has been an ever-present part of America’s past – and unfortunately, its foreseeable future. The federal government’s own Congressional Budget Office predicts the debt will increase $7.7 trillion over the next 10 years. The debt then will continue to rise because of the government’s many unfunded promises.

Someday there will be a reckoning. You can’t keep adding debt forever. And yet Washington seems incapable of stopping this train wreck from happening. So can the states do it?

In the State Capitol on Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to advance the Compact for a Balanced Budget, a national effort to amend the U.S. Constitution. It now goes to the Senate.

The Constitution has been amended 27 times, the first 10 amendments being the Bill of Rights. With each amendment, Congress has initiated the process.

However, under the Constitution’s Article V, the process can be initiated by states instead of Congress. Thirty-four states must agree to a call, Congress must make the call, the delegates must meet to propose amendments, and then 38 states must approve those amendments. It’s never been done before.

The Compact for a Balanced Budget spells out exactly what the convention would do and how it would do it. Delegates would vote for a single amendment saying the government cannot spend more than it collects unless it borrows under a debt limit that can be increased only with approval by state legislatures. It also requires a two-thirds vote by Congress for most tax increases.

The previous day, the House voted against a resolution advancing the Convention of the States, another national effort to amend the Constitution through the Article V process. That effort would let delegates consider a balanced budget amendment but also others that would limit the government’s power and scope. Supporters tried again on Friday and narrowly passed it through the House. It now goes to the Senate as well.

I like the Compact’s approach much better, but I understand why people are opposed to both. A balanced budget amendment could rob Congress of the flexibility it needs in a crisis. It could be ignored. Or it could give the Supreme Court an outsized say in taxing and spending matters. Clearly, the Convention of the States is a conservative movement meant to reduce the size of the federal government, which many Americans don’t really want to do.

Other arguments against the Article V approach are not as persuasive. Some fear a “runaway convention” where delegates make scary changes to the Constitution. That’s hard to imagine. Remember, whatever the convention proposes must then be ratified by 38 states, one at a time. It’s far more likely the process either would produce nothing, or something so watered down as to be meaningless.

Some are opposed to amending the Constitution because they say it is just fine like it is. Thank goodness that argument didn’t carry the day before passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, or the 19th, which ensured women have the right to vote.

The framers of the Constitution gave us a wonderful document, but it has become increasingly obvious since 1835 that it contains a flaw: The government has many incentives to create debt without a mechanism to discourage it. Thomas Jefferson recognized that flaw in 1798.

The framers also understood their own imperfections, and humanity’s, as well as the fact that times change. That’s why they made it possible to amend the Constitution, with great difficulty.

They wisely included the Article V provision. Congress can’t always be trusted, so a democratic process was needed to bypass it – before a crisis occurs, preferably.

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