Article V Retrospect   Leave a comment

Did I mention that an amendments convention is not a constitutional convention?

It is a convention of state-authorized delegates called to propose amendments to the constitution. It doesn’t make laws and the state legislatures are not required to ratify the amendments produced by that body.

The Founders put Article V in the Constitution for a reason. They foresaw a time when Congress might refuse to act on needed reforms and they wanted to provide the states a method to go around Congress when needed. The states-application-for-convention has not been used, but there are times when it probably should have been. Avoiding the Civil War comes to mind.

Today, we are in a similar situation. Our country is deeply divided and the political class appears to be unable or unwilling to address the problem. As our political third-rails multiply like viruses, an amendments convention seems like a better idea than a civil war to deal with issues like term limits, fiscal restraint in Congress or clarifying the federal-state relationship.

In fact, I believe a more broad-subject convention might provide the country with ownership of our Constitution. The Constitution doesn’t provide for a broad-subject convention. Our Founders were wise to create a cumbersome process. That’s right. What I want is not necessarily what we should get. Amending the Constitution should be considered tinkering with the foundation of a building. It should be done when needed, but avoided when things are sound.

Right now, we’re very close to an amendments convention on the subject of federal debt. Most Americans don’t like the idea of our children and grandchildren paying down the out-of-control federal debt over the next several decades. We’re about to tip over into the $17 trillion range, so we need to face facts – Washington is not going to fix itself. The best hope for curtailing the federal debt is using the constitutional powers of the states.

One suggested amendment is a balanced budget provision. Remember, 34 states would have to request this to trigger a convention. We’re currently at 32. If a convention were called to propose a balanced budget amendment, 38 states would be needed to ratify it. The Goldwater Institute has suggested the proposed 28th Amendment require the federal government to obtain the approval of 26 states for any increase above an initial debt limit.
Yes, this is the governmental equivalent of asking Dad to cosign your car loan. Our elected representatives should be ashamed that they need that sort of oversight.

We’re at a crossroads. Washington refuses to balance its budget. Our national debt now exceeds 100% of the Gross Domestic Product, which we last did during World War II. Our 2012 federal fiscal year operating deficit was $1.1 trillion. Congress hasn’t passed a budget in the Obama administration. We have $90 Trillion in unfunded liability. To save the nation from bankruptcy, the American people, operating through our state legislatures, can and must intervene.

Most of us (Paul Krugman excepted) can agree that a balanced budget amendment is a good idea. There is a question about the best way to go about. Some would like to see a simple amendment that requires a balanced budget, period. Others believe it should have an exception for war or economic freefall or an invasion from Mars. Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek. Exceptions are so subject to interpretation and manipulation. I favor involving the state legislatures because they are a great deal more accountable to the people than those in DC are.

This role for states is not new. State legislatures used to exercise a great deal more control at the federal level before the 17th Amendment removed them from the role of appointing U.S. Senators. Senators understood that their votes on the floor were subject to scrutiny on the folks back home through the legislature and they acted accordingly. Today, they answer more to multinational corporations and lobbyists than they do to mere voters.

We really can’t blame the out of control federal government on a particular party or the President. The problem is the centralization of power in Washington D.C. The anecdote is federalism – 34 state legislatures are needed to call an Article V amendments convention, 26 states control the convention, and 13 states can block any unacceptable amendment proposal.

By requiring state approval for an increase in the federal debt, states would be reclaiming a modest portion of the authority over federal policies that the Constitution intended. If it works, it could become the prototype for other reforms that shift the balance of power back to a more equal footing, giving the states and the people real leverage rather than empty promises.

The country was at a similar crossroads in the late 1850s and we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity that Article V provides then. We paid a heavy price for that failure. We need to take advantage of the Founders’ wisdom before it is too late to prevent what so much frustration is likely to produce.

Although currently we’re on the cusp of activating an amendments convention for a balanced budget, and it is a good idea to have a limited subject convention, our current circumstances may require that we have more than one convention over the next decade to clear up matters that have long been at issue in the federal-state relationship.

Mark Levin’s book “The Liberty Amendments” contains a lot of suggested amendments for proposal. We cannot expect the federal government to reform itself. The states are all that stands between we the people and national meltdown. Do we use them as they were intended or do we come to the modern equivalent of 1860 and find we’ve no good way back from a disaster of our own making?

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