In fiscal year 2015, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the federal government will run a deficit of $468 billion, borrowing approximately 13 cents of every dollar it spends. As if this were not enough cause for concern, the CBO’s 10-year forecast projects the deficit will steadily increase to be more than $1 trillion by 2025, leaving the nation with a debt of approximately $27.3 trillion in 2025 – plus or minus a trillion or two, depending on whom you ask. Sobering projections like these have led to renewed calls for adopting a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.
However, implementing such a common sense spending restraint is more easily said than done. While recent polling shows broad support among Americans for passing the Balanced Budget Amendment, typically in the 65 percent to 75 percent range, the prospects for securing a two-thirds vote in the current Congress to propose the amendment are dim.
Fortunately, the Founders anticipated that Congress might someday choose to ignore the American people and refuse to support amendments that would limit their own power. They therefore included an alternative path to amending the Constitution, one which empowers the states to propose amendments without a two-thirds vote in Congress. This method is the Article V Convention, an option many states are now turning to in order to bypass Congress. For supporters of the Balanced Budget Amendment, this may be the only way to see the amendment passed in the near future.
There are two ways to amend the Constitution. The first option is to have two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to propose a given amendment. This is the one most people are familiar with because it is the path used for all of the 27 amendments passed so far. The second, less well-known option provided in Article V is for two-thirds of state legislatures to apply for a “convention for proposing amendments.”
In the latter case, once 34 of the 50 states apply for an Article V convention, the states then convene to decide the language of the amendment they are seeking, and then send it out to all 50 states, “proposing it,” for them to consider. Once proposed, if three-fourths of the states, 38 out of 50, approve the amendment, it is adopted and becomes part of the Constitution. It is much the same process as having Congress propose an amendment with a two-thirds vote, except that it substitutes Congress with a two-thirds vote of the state legislatures in the initial proposal of an amendment.
The difficulty of getting so many state legislatures to pass Article V resolutions with a two-thirds vote is why the method has not been successfully used to date. President Ronald Reagan, frustrated with Congress, turned to the states to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment and he got very close, with 32 of the required 34 states passing resolutions.
Supporters of the Balanced Budget Amendment have had tremendous success in the last few years, with 25 states now calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment via an Article V convention. South Dakota became the 25th state just last month, and proposals are currently being considered by several other states this session. If just nine more state legislatures pass similar resolutions, the Balanced Budget Amendment stands a good chance to become the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
While some might consider amending the Constitution a radical approach to control spending, it should be noted that every state except Vermont has a balanced budget requirement of some kind, with most states having the requirement written into their constitution. Such an amendment would be far from radical; indeed, it would simply require the same fiscal responsibility from Washington as is currently enforced in 49 of the 50 states. Furthermore, most proposed language for such an amendment includes exceptions for times of war or other national emergencies, allowing the government to run deficits should the security of the nation be at stake.
It is time for the states to use their constitutionally granted powers to pass a federal Balanced Budget Amendment. The sooner they do, the sooner we can start to get our nation’s debt under control and restore fiscal accountability to Washington.
For more information on Article V conventions, please download a free copy of Proposing Constitutional Amendments by a Convention of States: A Handbook for State Legislators.
Michael Hough is a state senator in Maryland and the Director of the Center to Restore the Balance of Government at the American Legislative Exchange Council. Theodore Lafferty is a legal analyst at the ALEC Center for State Fiscal Reform. To learn more about ALEC, visit www.alec.org.