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A Historic Fiscal Solution, If We Overcome Convention Fears


If you haven’t noticed, the major problems at the federal level are bipartisan. The debt-ceiling charade, in particular, demonstrated that leaders of both major parties have no desire to balance their books. Sure, they’ll propose minor cuts to spending projections, but the status quo of deficits suits them just fine.

The status quo does not, however, suit taxpayers, upon whom the burden is saddled — and that includes future generations not here to defend themselves. Deficits are, after all, merely deferred taxation plus interest.

If a halt or reversal of current fiscal trends is going to happen, an external check or structural change appears necessary. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution already has such a provision, one yet to be used. Article V gives equal authority to Congress and state legislatures to amend the Constitution, so state officials can be that check.

Many initiatives, including straight balanced-budget amendments, are already in motion. While those amendments face technical difficulties — particularly given the federal government’s creative accounting — RestoringFreedom.org has come up with a simple alternative. Of the initiatives competing for attention, the National Debt Relief Amendment (NDRA) appears to be the most likely to both cap federal debt and gain bipartisan support. Adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council as model legislation, it reads,

An increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.

Imagine that: a federalist balance of power. Before an increase to the debt, more than half of the states would have to give approval. That still leaves the door open for deficits in emergencies, but it would spell an end to the prevailing annual deficits of more than $1 trillion.

It would also necessitate better debt justifications than the con-job handed out by John Boehner. By his math, the latest debt-ceiling deal has spending cuts that “exceed the debt hike.” The supposed spending cuts occur over ten years, but the debt increase of roughly the same magnitude, $900 billion, occurs in just six months.

However, given that Congress is not going to tie its own hands, the NDRA requires an amendments convention and initial resolutions from 34 states. (It has passed in two states so far.) Congress initiated all of the current 27 amendments, and such a convention is yet to happen, so many people fear it will run away and lead to a radical rewriting of the Constitution.

These fears, promoted by the John Birch Society and Eagle Forum, are unfounded and easily refuted, but that hasn’t stopped them from turning potential balanced-budget proponents away. They’ve managed to prevent NDRA passage in four states — if only temporarily — including Arizona and Utah, even though the NDRA resolutions specified that the subsequent convention would be limited to that particular amendment. (Click here for an extended rebuttal from Curtis Olafson, NDRA national spokesman and North Dakota state senator, interviewed on Forgotten Men Radio this past weekend — 27 minutes.)

The Goldwater Institute has done extensive research into the Article V convention process and has published a rebuttal against the potential for a runaway convention. Most notably, the Framers rejected language that would have permitted an open constitutional convention. Further, the states are the ones that initiate the process, and they can limit the authority of their delegates.

However, even if the fears of a runaway convention were well-founded and one occurred, 38 state legislatures would still need to approve any change to the Constitution. That means just 13 legislative chambers have combined veto power. Such a high burden for approval means no radical initiative would stand a chance.

On the other hand, not acting at this point would be irresponsible and the consequences dire. Even the Congressional Budget Office has warned that the current debt will reduce domestic investment and American incomes. A loss of confidence, already signaled by the recent credit-rating downgrade, would also place immense pressure on interest rates and cause debt payments to consume an ever-growing portion of federal spending.

“I have a little two-year-old grandson,” says Olafson. “He hasn’t signed a mortgage. He hasn’t cast a vote — but our generation is sending his generation the debt for our spending today…. An Article V runaway convention is a myth; a $14 trillion national debt is reality.”

The reality is actually worse than the official debt number, and the hole is deeper than $200 trillion, as estimated by Larry Kotlikoff of Boston University. The least we can do is stop digging further, precisely what the NDRA would achieve, and it would be a historic shift of power back to states.

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    Fergus Hodgson is host, editor, and founder of The Stateless Man radio show and e-newsletter and a policy advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation.