Imagine a convention center filled with … three-cornered hats. And powdered wigs. Imagine British soldiers in vibrant red coats and little paperboys handing out copies of the Federalist Papers. Featured guests would include Nicolas Cage (“National Treasure,” anybody?) and Daniel Day-Lewis. There’d be a costume contest to see who was the best Founding Father. If that’s not a constitutional convention, then I don’t know what is.
Legislators in 27 states have passed resolutions calling for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, The Washington Post reported. The ambiguously named amendment (note heavy sarcasm) would require that all federal budgets must not contribute to the massive national debt. As I’m writing this, the National Debt Clock website has the U.S. debt at a little under $18.177 trillion.
In 2015, conservatives plan to target nine states with Republican-dominated legislatures to push through similar calls for a balanced budget amendment. If seven states pass the resolution, we will have the first constitutional convention since the Constitution was written. I promise, there could not be anything worse.
The largest problem is the precedent it will set. This will be the first convention of its kind, and I am terrified of its implications. Once we invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars into planning and organizing this convention, everything will be in the hands of completely anonymous state legislators. I don’t know if you’ve noticed how crazy this political climate is, but I really don’t think we want these people to be making any big, Constitution-altering decisions right now.
Furthermore, there are no guidelines for this sort of thing. It seems that the 1787 Constitutional Convention really sought to make its directions as vague as possible, using less than 150 words to describe the whole amendment process. One possibility is that once at the convention, lawmakers could bring up and make decisions on incredibly controversial topics such as gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, etc.
The National Conference of State Legislatures puts the total number of state legislators nationwide at about 7,300. Interestingly enough, New Hampshire, a state with like five people, accounts for 424 of those lawmakers. California has 120. Now, not only do we have to worry about relatively unvetted people proposing new legislation, but we also have to consider how unfairly some states will (or will not) be represented.
Additionally, there are some pretty big problems with the proposed amendment. In an ideal world, putting together a balanced budget every year would be a piece of cake. And yet I’m looking at a National Debt Clock that just passed $18.178 trillion. It’s easy to joke that politicians don’t know how to use a calculator or balance a checkbook, but more realistically, we should acknowledge what a difficult task they face.
To put a hard, no-exceptions restriction on their power is a poor decision. Sometimes, it is necessary to spend more than we generate in revenue. In years of economic downturn, economic stimulus packages are a viable option to stop the bleeding. In times of war, the government needs to invest in its military to ensure that all soldiers are reasonably safe and prepared for duty. We should not be so foolish as to assume that we know what future Americans will need.
One of the reasons our Constitution has survived the last 226 years is because the framers made it intentionally vague. The document is 4,400 words in length and establishes a malleable framework. By creating constitutional amendments with hard and fast rules, we limit the flexibility of our Constitution, and therefore our lawmakers’ ability to best serve the American people.
Understatement of the century: $18 trillion is a lot of money. The system we’re working under now is clearly flawed, but just because our federal lawmakers are failing us today does not mean we should limit tomorrow’s leaders. There are other, less drastic approaches to this problem.
We could elect leaders who value a balanced, but responsible, budget. We could look to those who want to work with the other side, instead of drumming up support for costly constitutional conventions. Instead of going over federal politicians’ heads, let’s hear from them. Why is it so hard to balance the budget? Do they have suggestions on how to address the issue? We want a truly candid conversation with those at the heart of the problem, instead of a (nearly) permanent fix to a problem we don’t entirely understand.
The federal budget is a vastly complex issue, and I don’t believe that a constitutional convention is the way to address our qualms with it. Just look at the way we sensationalize national elections. I don’t see how this would be different. They might not be in costume, but state legislators would certainly be putting on a show.