As Republicans have surged to control of state legislatures and moved sharply to the right during the Obama years, what once was once a pet project of the party’s fringe has become a proposal with a plausible chance of success, says The New York Times. States can draft their own constitutional amendments whenever two-thirds of their legislatures demand it.
The goal is an amendment to require a balanced federal budget, “an idea many conservatives have embraced, many economists disdain and Congress has failed to endorse for decades,” says the Times.
Critics and some skeptical constitutional scholars say holding an amendment-writing meeting with no historical parallel and no written rules could open a Pandora’s box of constitutional mischief.
Supporters say the philosophy that state governments and ordinary people usually adhere to — that it’s wrong and destructive to spend beyond one’s income — should apply to the federal government as well. In that view, the $19.4 trillion national debt threatens to destroy America’s future prosperity.
But opponents say a government that couldn’t run deficits wouldn’t be able to stimulate the economy during recessions, when job-creating spending is most needed. And it wouldn’t be able to avoid budget ceilings for benefits like Social Security, or for job-creating projects like highways that are financed with debt.
Then there’s the more fundamental question of whether delegates to a convention could be trusted not to tinker with other parts of the Constitution.
“Once you have a convention, then in some respects it becomes a free-for-all,” says Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor and scholar in residence at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “All bets are off.”
But any proposal has to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. “There’s no controversial idea on the left or the right that won’t have 13 states against it,” says Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and recent, if brief, Democratic presidential candidate.