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Do we need Congress to balance the budget?

February 19, 2013

Boxcar loads of ink and paper, not to mention enough hot air to float the planet without gravity, have been expended to try to achieve the goal of requiring the United States to live within its means.  From 60 to 80% of the population that respond to polls at various times say they are for the idea, yet the concept seems to be so utterly frightening to our national lawmakers that they never get it done. The excuse for that is “congressional gridlock”.

Even the framers of the original Constitution apparently foresaw Congressional gridlock, and they addressed this issue in Article V of the preamble to the Constitution, as follows:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.[1] (Italics added by author)

At various times, as many as 32 states have had applications pending asking for Congress to call an Article V constitutional convention for the express purpose of drafting and presenting for ratification some type of balanced budget amendment, although seven states withdrew their applications for various reasons.[2]   As we now have 50 states, the total needed to reach 75% would be 38. Currently it is usually reported that 25 states have active applications, with the last being New Hampshire on May 16, 2012.

The closest the nation ever came to having an Article V convention was in 1969, and the issue enumerated on the applications was the creation of a balanced budget amendment.  In 1969 only one or possibly two  (sources vary on the exact number) more states were needed to force the issue, but it was sidetracked in part by the death of Senator Everett Dirksen, the primary champion of the movement, and also by the passage of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act.  It was widely accepted at the time that the threat of an Article V convention was a motivating factor in the passage of what is popularly called Gramm-Rudman today.  Gramm-Rudman was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1986, before its provisions could be fully enacted.

In his work published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, James Rogers states that four of our amendments to the Constitution, the Seventeenth, Twenty-first, Twenty-second and Twenty-fifth, may have been passed as a result of the threat of Article V conventions[3].

Article V is not an easy or quick path to sidestepping the political maneuvering and politicking in Washington D.C. Far from it, the method is cumbersome, time-consuming and often sidetracked by poorly constructed and hastily written bills in Congress passed to forestall a convention. Still, it is a path.

There is a way to sidestep congressional gridlock.   Do we have the concerted will to demand it?

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