Only one day after the midterm elections resulted in overwhelming gains for the Republican Party, presumptive Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ceded Congress’s bargaining position with respect to negotiating spending cuts when he proclaimed in a news conference that, “we’re not going to be shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt.” His reference to “defaulting” on the debt was only a scare tactic. Refusing to increase the debt limit would not require a default. Tax receipts are more than adequate to service the debt. Defaulting would require an affirmative choice not to make debt payments. But the establishment spenders in Washington D.C. know how to fear monger. Dissembling has no party affiliation. McConnell’s message is loud and clear – the elected Republican establishment will not rock the boat on America’s excess spending.
Republican gains were not limited to the Federal government. State governments also saw substantial advances. Republicans picked up control of at least 9 state legislative chambers. They now control 31 state legislatures outright and share control between two chambers with Democrats in 8 others. As it is clear that the national Republican establishment will not address America’s spending and borrowing spree, it’s time to look to the states for a solution.
Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution provides two avenues for its amendment. The first requires a formal decision by Congress to initiate the process. The second does not. Whenever “the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments”, Congress “shall call a convention for the proposing of amendments.” Any amendments thus proposed become effective only “when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof.” With 50 states, 34 are required to propose an amendment for consideration by the states for ratification and 38 states would be required to ratify.
Historically, 27 state legislatures have proposed amendments which would limit the Federal government’s ability to borrow, thus demonstrating substantial interest in utilizing their constitutional power to enforce fiscal responsibility upon the Federal government. Because of a confluence of circumstances, now is the time for the state legislatures to make the notion of a state initiated balanced budget amendment a reality.
First, our rendezvous with economic destruction grows nearer and nearer at a faster and faster pace. The debt is $18T and only growing. Serious people are rightfully concerned at the burden we are placing on our children. The magnitude of the problem, the swiftness of its worsening and the concern we have for future generations of Americans all make now the right time for the states to pursue a solution.
Second, McConnell’s comments are only the most recent confirmation of a truth we should have acknowledged long ago – neither national party is interested in returning the U.S. to fiscal responsibility. We must face reality. When it comes to our national leadership, selfishness is the rule; integrity the exception. For most of Congress, the first objectives are re-election and consolidation of personal power, both of which might be jeopardized if tough decisions were imposed on the American people to reduce spending, raise taxes or both. Where self preservation prevails over honor and duty, borrowing and spending provide an easy answer so long as society is willing to ignore the ultimate consequences.
Third, state Republicans have accumulated strength in numbers not seen since the very early part of the 20th century. Those numbers indicate that the likelihood of achieving the 34 states necessary for a proposed amendment is as good as it’s ever been.
Fourth, because state Republicans are not drunk on national power and media fawning, they are addicted to neither. They have every reason to be motivated to address such a crucial national problem. Indeed, the self interest that compels national Republicans to ignore the debt crisis might just compel state Republicans to address it. Attacking profligate Federal spending and borrowing may be both excellent leadership and an opportunity for historical greatness. If America is to survive its decades long debt addiction, history will record with admiration and reverence those who lead us to redemption.
Finally, regardless of whether ratification can be won, America is ripe for the debate. Our submersion into debt is ignored by national leaders and media alike. There is no national discussion even though the issue demands attention. Moreover, even if a balanced budget amendment ultimately fails to gain ratification, the country deserves the opportunity to actually decide the issue. Anyone who is concerned for the well being of the country and for future generations must feel the need to frame the debate, have the argument, and come to a national decision. Surely it is better to attempt to avoid disaster rather than to do nothing but await its arrival.
Those who want to maintain the status quo have a strategy – to avoid the debate. One sure way to avoid losing an argument is not to have it. Their favored tactic is to ignore the issue. That tactic has worked well because everyone with an amplified voice, both national parties and the national media, keep it out of their talking points and off of the front page. Whenever a balanced budget amendment is mentioned, they employ a second tactic – they demonize the constitutional process arguing that a convention of the states would be “dangerous”. They ignore the fact that any proposed amendment would require ratification by 38 states in order to take effect, pretending that the convention itself could actually affect changes in the Constitution. Notwithstanding the weakness of their arguments, in order to alleviate any concerns whatsoever concerning a convention, the notion of a compact among the states has been thoroughly developed and vetted. It would eliminate the need for a formal convention thus eliminating any concern that other amendments might be proposed or adopted.
As the Federal government has grown more powerful over the past many decades, the authority of the states has diminished. Most state officials have become accustomed to having almost no role in national affairs. Not surprisingly, state legislatures generally see their responsibilities limited to the ambit of intrastate concerns. However, there remains an important constitutional function codified in Article 5. Nothing that has occurred in the past 80 years to unconstitutionally empower the Federal government has changed that fact. The Article 5 authority conferred upon the states remains, unadulterated by any of the interpretive constitutional contortions achieved in the past to empower the Federal government.
The founders recognized the states’ role as a check against overreaches by the Federal government. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist Number 26 that “…the state Legislature…will always be vigilant…suspicious and jealous guardians…against encroachments from the Federal government…and… will be ready enough, if any thing improper appears, to sound the alarm to the people.” Even more on point, he stated in Number 85 that “we may safely rely on…the State legislatures to erect barriers against the encroachments of the national authority.” Now is the time for the state legislatures to remember their important place in the balance of national power and to rediscover their duty to exercise that power in defense of their citizens and their nation in crisis.