With Congress on perpetual spending spree, movement to empower state lawmakers gathers steam

Kevin Mooney Kevin is a journalist and investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.
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The United States hasn’t seen a constitutional convention since 1787. But with Washington, D.C.’s political class continuing to borrow and spend, the state legislatures in North Dakota and Louisiana have passed resolutions calling for another one.

Fears of future increases in the national debt have created this new political movement, based on the idea that state governments should have a say in the financial future of the United States.

The idea of a state-initiated change in the U.S. Constitution is not original. Recent calls to revise or replace the Constitution include the 2008 musings of a University of Colorado law professor and the 2010 argument of a Virginia state lawmaker.

But an effort spearheaded in 2011 proposes a specific kind of action — the sort of constitutional convention prescribed in Article 5 of the Constitution, which permits states to convene for the purpose of adding specific amendments.

That’s what North Dakota and Louisiana legislators had in mind when they called for a convention to consider passage of the National Debt Relief Amendment (NDRA).

It consists of just 18 words: “An increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate states.”

North Dakota State Sen. Curtis Olafson, who has spearheaded the effort in both states, told The Daily Caller that the idea has gathered steam since the collapse of the super committee set up to produce a deficit reduction package. And the latest in a series of failed attempts to shepherd a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) through Congress has added more fuel to the fire.

“Anyone who is hoping that Congress will one day have an epiphany and take action to limit its own ability to borrow and spend money is oblivious to what motivates members of Congress,” he said. “The ability of Congress to borrow and spend money and defer the debt to future generations, who have no ability to cast a vote today, is what empowers them and ensures their continued tenure.”

Unless the states are put in a position where they can apply meaningful pressure against new debt, Olafson said, Congress will continue opting to repeatedly raise the debt ceiling instead of reforming itself.

“That is why our Founding Fathers formulated Article 5,” he told TheDC. “We, as state legislators … have a duty to use Article 5 when we see a serious challenge facing our nation that is not being solved by our federal government.”

Under Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution, once two-thirds of the states — 34 out of 50 — agree on an amendment, Congress must set a time and place for delegates of all 50 states to hold a convention. Three-quarters of the states —meaning 38 of them — must then approve the result.

Goldwater Institute constitutional scholar Nick Dranias sees the NDRA as a compelling alternative to the many competing versions of the Balanced Budget Amendment. Giving state lawmakers the authority to approve or reject increases in the federal debt, he explained, would give them sufficient leverage to force Congress to live within its means.

The NDRA is “the only Article 5 idea out there right now that is being done in the right way, and it has tremendous traction,” Dranias told TheDC. “With the Balanced Budget Amendment it will be very difficult to bundle all those different versions together and make the case that they add up to 34 identical applications.”

Since December, the debt relief amendment has attracted new legislative sponsors in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Wyoming and New Mexico. The proposal is pending in 21 states, according to RestoringFreedom.Org, the Texas-based conservative organization that drafted the amendment.

Olafson also views the NDRA as a more effective solution than merely forcing Congress to balance its books each year.

The Balanced Budget Amendment’s different incarnations, he cautioned, typically contain loopholes that would enable big spenders in both parties to make an end-run around its key provisions.

“Passing the BBA will leave the concentration of power in Washington, D.C., which is the root of the federal debt problem,” Olafson said. “The NDRA moves the discussion on whether to increase the federal debt to the government closest to the people — the state legislatures.”

The “imprecise definitions and provisions” of the Balanced Budget Amendment, he said, would also be open to the interpretation of federal judges in ways that the NDRA’s simple language — referring only to the “federal debt” — would not.

“The NDRA would be self-enforcing,” Olafson explained, because “financial markets would significantly discount, or more likely, render unmarketable, any treasury bonds used to finance debt that has not been approved by a majority of state legislatures.”

Even so, some conservative activists are concerned that the Article 5 process could result in an out-of-control constitutional convention that dramatically alters the U.S. Constitution in ways budget hawks would not appreciate.

“I don’t see leaders today with the same depth of knowledge and integrity of the original Founding Fathers,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.

“In today’s culture, we could have a runaway convention. It would be like having the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention in the same place, at the same time. This makes no sense and it would be very destructive.”

Dranias, the Goldwater Institute scholar, countered that America’s founders specifically rejected language proposed for Article 5 that would have allowed for full-blown and open-ended constitutional conventions. Instead, he said, they limited such events to narrowly drawn single issues.

And the “runaway convention” is already in motion on Capitol Hill, he said, where members of Congress repeatedly run up the national debt without accountability to anyone in particular.

“If ever there was a time in the history of our country when we should use Article 5, it is now,” Olafson argued. “If ever there was an issue facing our nation for which we should use Article V, it is the out-of-control federal debt.”

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