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October 2016 Brief: Volume 23, Number 28

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How to Restore Federal Fiscal Sanity:
The State Legislatures Hold the Key


By the late David M. Stanley



The American people want a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA). National polls consistently show that more than two-thirds of the American people want to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced federal budget. This powerful and growing support, in spite of a multi-million-dollar campaign of fear and distortion by opponents of the BBA, is impressive.


The federal government’s spending and debt are out of control. We no longer have a debt problem: we have a national debt addiction. Soaring federal debt causes or worsens many problems – inflation, unemployment, high real interest rates, an unstable economy, stressed families, etc. – that put burdens on state governments and budgets. Congress and the President could balance the budget by statute if they had enough willpower, but they don’t.


Our people’s right not to have massive debt imposed on us is so important that it needs and deserves constitutional protection. One major purpose of our Constitution is to protect human rights by limiting the power of government. More than 200 years ago, wise Americans amended our Constitution to give us a Bill of Rights. If they hadn’t put these rights into our Constitution, Congress and the President would have the unlimited power to decide how much freedom of speech and worship we could have – a sobering thought. Isn’t it equally sobering that our Congress and President now have the absolute, unlimited power to spend, tax, and borrow – and to pile mountains of debt on future generations?


A BBA will require that total federal spending (“total outlays”) must not exceed total federal revenue (“total receipts”) for each year, with two exceptions: deficit spending will be allowed during a declared war or serious military conflict, and three-fifths (60 percent) of all members of each House of Congress will be able to approve a specific amount of deficit spending by roll-call vote. The federal debt limit will be increased only by a roll-call vote of three-fifths (60 percent) of all members of each House of Congress. The President will be required to submit a balanced budget to Congress each year.


A BBA will also require that any increase in taxes or other revenue must be approved by a constitutional majority of each House of Congress – a “yes” vote by a majority of all members in a roll-call vote. This will make it much harder to raise taxes. Now, Congress can raise taxes by voice vote with many members absent. Often a tax increase is hidden in a “Christmas tree” bill. The Balanced Budget Amendment will make each member of Congress – and the President – visible and accountable to the voters.


Many members of Congress, in both parties, sincerely work for the BBA. They admit that spending and debt are out of control and that they need the discipline of this amendment. But many others work equally hard against it. They put their self-interest first. They use deficit spending to buy their reelection. Many powerful and senior members of Congress fight hard against any attempt to restrain their unlimited spending and unlimited borrowing.


The U.S. Constitution provides only one way to compel a reluctant Congress to act on a Constitutional Amendment that the people and the State Legislatures want. That one way is for 34 states to adopt a resolution asking Congress either to propose a specific amendment or to call a limited constitutional convention to propose only this one amendment.


If two-thirds of the states request a convention under Article V of the Constitution, Congress must call the convention. Congress must also provide for the election of delegates, the time and place of the convention, etc. In the same legislation, Congress can limit the convention to only one subject. Congress undoubtedly would do so. Congress has no desire for an unlimited convention that might, for example, propose term limits or a limit on congressional pay. Congress will be under heavy public and political pressure to limit the convention as specified in the states’ resolution calling for the convention.


Our opponents claim a constitutional convention might repeal the Bill of Rights, impose a communist system, or do some other horrendous damage to our Constitution. Whatever you most fear, you will be told that a convention will do it. Don’t be surprised if you are told a convention will cause cancer, hepatitis, and acne.


A constitutional convention, like Congress, can only propose an amendment, which must then be ratified by 38 states. Assume the worst: a wide-open, irresponsible convention that defies its limited authority and proposes dangerous amendments, and both Congress and the Supreme Court somehow fail to use their power to stop these illegal amendments. Even this imaginary situation would not endanger our Constitution because of the ratification requirement.


Each amendment would die if only 13 states did not ratify it. Mere inaction by 13 State Legislatures would defeat any amendment. The failures of the Equal Rights Amendment and the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendments show how hard it is to get 38 States to ratify any controversial amendment.


Our State Legislatures hold the key to federal fiscal sanity. State resolutions calling for a Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment and, if necessary, a limited convention to propose it, are essential to stopping runaway spending, deficits, and debt.


Public Interest Institute’s POLICY STUDY, How to Restore Federal Fiscal Sanity: The State Legislatures Hold the Key, can be viewed at


David Stanley was formerly the Chairman of National Taxpayers Union, Iowans for Tax Relief, and Public Interest Institute until his death on August 26, 2015.


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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