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Category: Article V

Drafting a Balanced Budget Amendment: It’s tougher than you might think

Drafting a Balanced Budget Amendment: It’s tougher than you might think

The idea of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution (BBA) has been highly popular since the 1970s. Yet Congress has failed to propose a BBA, and the number of states applying for a proposing convention remains stuck below the necessary 34. Meanwhile, the federal debt continues to soar out of control.

Among the tactics employed by Article V skeptics is to highlight the difficulties in drafting an effective BBA. For once they have a point. Here are some of the defects afflicting present drafts, including some reproduced in Article V legislative applications:

  • Relying on congressional supermajorities (two thirds, three fourths, 60%) whose practical effect will vary in unknown ways between the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
  • Unwittingly validating federal spending programs that, objectively considered, are currently unconstitutional.
  • Introducing into the Constitution new words and phrases (e.g., “outlays,” “estimated revenue”), either undefined or poorly defined.
  • Relying on budgetary formulae shown to be ineffective at the state level.
  • Including terms (e.g., two-thirds vote to raise taxes) pleasing to potential donors, but rendering impossible the broad coalition necessary to ratify.
  • Relying unduly on the courts for enforcement.

In addition, some of the drafts are simply too long to be accepted as amendments. The longest constitutional change ever adopted was the Fourteenth Amendment—containing 423 words—but some BBA drafts are far longer. In addition, some drafts contain unclear language. Consider this example appearing in a few state applications:

Total outlays of the government of the United States shall not exceed total receipts of the government of the United States at any point in time unless [a condition is met].

What does it mean to say that total outlays cannot exceed total receipts “at any point in time?” Does that mean that the inflow of dollars must always exceed the simultaneous outflow? Maybe. But if so, it disregards the realities of government finance: tax revenue arrives in chunks (as on April 15), while spending is more constant over the course of the year. Or does it mean that at any “point in time” all expenditures ever made, from 1789 to date, cannot exceed all funds received? But that would render existing debt unconstitutional. And what is a “point in time,” anyway? A day? hour? nanosecond? As Kurt Vonnegut might have quipped, “So it goes.”

Of course, it is one thing to criticize, but another to try to craft something better. A new Heartland Institute Policy Brief includes my own draft, with accompanying explanations. I know it is imperfect, and neither my draft nor anyone else’s should be included in state legislative applications. (The proposing convention has the constitutional prerogative of writing the amendment.) My goal is merely to “reset” public discussion to, perhaps, a higher level, and encourage others to offer proposals better than mine.

You can get the Policy Brief here.

The last convention of states ever held? It Centered on the Upper Colorado River

The last convention of states ever held? It Centered on the Upper Colorado River

I recently obtained the records of what may be the last convention of states ever held—records demonstrating that states were meeting in convention well into the mid 20th century.

A “convention of states” as the American Founders and subsequent generations understood the term, is a temporary conclave of legislatively-authorized representatives from three or more states. It is both a diplomatic gathering—the representatives or “commissioners” are essentially ambassadors from their respective legislatures—and a problem-solving task force. Sometimes representatives of sovereignties other than states, such as Indian tribes or the federal government (or, in colonial times, the British crown), have been invited to participate. Conventions of states also have been called “committees of states,” “congresses,” and “commissions.”

Conventions of states, both national (“general”) and regional (“partial”), have met for many different purposes: to plan common defense, work out common responses to political challenges, negotiate treaties with Indian tribes, seek and propose solutions to economic problems, propose constitutional amendments, and, on two occasions (Philadelphia in 1787 and Montgomery in 1861) to prepare new constitutions. Only the last two can properly be called constitutional conventions.

In the 20th century, states used them to hammer out western water compacts. I previously reported on the Santa Fe Convention of 1922, formally called the Colorado River Compact Commission. It was the gathering of seven states and a federal commissioner, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.  It negotiated the Colorado River Compact. I also have reported that similar gatherings met to negotiate the Rio Grande River Compact and an abortive North Platte River compact. My latest acquisition is the official record of the convention that negotiated the compact covering the Upper Colorado River —the portion north and east of Lee Ferry, Arizona.

This was a true convention among five states: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. It met intermittently from July 22, 1946 to August 5, 1949. Commissioners attended from each state. They were not chosen by their legislatures directly, but legislative statutes authorized the appointment of each and gave each his power. At the request of the states, President Truman named a federal representative to participate as well: Harry W. Bashore, formerly Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The group’s assignment was to divide up the waters of the Upper Colorado River among the five states and determine how much each state had to provide to the states of the Lower Colorado River. This was a highly technical task. Accordingly, unlike most conventions (but like the Santa Fe meeting) there was only one commissioner from each state, but each was assisted by a technical staff. In addition, the group created an engineering advisory committee and a legal advisory committee. The technical nature of the job was why the group had to keep adjourning and reassembling: Engineering studies and negotiations over local streams were performed in the interim.

Another interesting variation is that, like the 1922 convention, the Upper Colorado River group met in different cities and towns at different times: Cheyenne, Wyoming; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City and Vernal, Utah; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition, it held public hearings in four other towns. In all, there were 41 days of sessions grouped into eleven formal “meetings.” The first eight meetings led to completion of the compact in 1948. The remaining three, held the following year, were short sessions for wrapping up business.

The conclave also gave itself a name, since its authorizing documents didn’t specify one. It called itself the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact Commisssion.

Within those variations, the group operated according to standard convention of states protocols. Specifically:

* The commissioners established their own procedures. Thus, they made it clear that a preliminary meeting that included the state governors did not bind them, and they re-voted on the decisions made at that preliminary meeting.

* Each state had one vote, cast by its commissioner, no matter how many people from each state happened to be present. After briefly considering a unanimity rule (such as the Colorado River Commission adopted but eventually abandoned), the group retained a rule of decision by a majority. However, it strove for unanimity, and generally was successful. The federal representative had no vote.

* The commissioners elected their own officers: As has been typical among interstate conventions the chairman was a commissioner and the secretary was not. Although he could not vote, Mr. Bashore was elected chairman.

* The record reproduces many roll call votes by states, some quite dramatic. The voting usually was open. But the vote on the overall percentages by which states would divide the river water was by secret ballot.

* The commissioners affirmed that they were negotiating by virtue of the states’ reserved sovereign powers, not by virtue of permission of federal law (as President Truman seemed to think). In this respect, the Upper Colorado River Convention was typical—although a gathering held under Article V would derive its authority from the Constitution rather than from reserved sovereign power.

The proceedings the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact Commission are impressive. The commissioners and staff worked very hard. Most people involved were thoughtful and highly qualified. The engineering studies were voluminous.

Also impressive is the recurrence of some important names. A listed adviser was Ralph Carr, who later as governor of Colorado during World War II, won national attention by opposing the Roosevelt administration’s groundless incarceration of Japanese-American citizens. Another listed adviser was Barry M. Goldwater, later U.S. Senator and the 1964 Republican nominee for President.

The compact the convention negotiated was approved by all five states and by Congress. It is still in effect. It created a permanent administrative body called the Upper Colorado River Commission, to whose staff I am grateful for loaning me the convention record.

Fake News: How Two Leading Newspapers Spread the “Runaway Convention” Story in the 1960s & 1970s

Fake News: How Two Leading Newspapers Spread the “Runaway Convention” Story in the 1960s & 1970s

Although there were scattered antecedents, “runaway convention” claims and certain associated myths were first distributed widely during the 1960s and 1970s. In a previous Article V Information Center study, I documented how those stories were publicized by leading opinion-molders in national liberal establishment. Their goal was to disable the Article V convention process to prevent proposal of constitutional amendments to restrain the federal government.

Now a new Article V Information Center study shows how the two leading newspapers of the same liberal establishment worked with those opinion-molders. During the 1960s and 1970s, the New York Times and the Washington Post not only opposed a convention editorially, but their skewed their news stories to promote fake news “runaway” claims.

You can find the new study here.

The Convention of States in American History

The Convention of States in American History

In this short essay, constitutional historian Rob Natelson thumbnails the three-centuries long history of “conventions of the states.”

When delegations from the states assemble in Phoenix, Arizona later this year, they will be basking in a long and rich American tradition.

As far back as 1677, British colonies in North America sent “commissioners” (delegates) to meet with each other to discuss common issues. These gatherings were essentially problem-solving task forces. That is, they were temporary assemblies charged with proposing solutions to prescribed problems.

During the colonial era, most conventions met in New York City, Boston, or Albany, New York: Albany was popular because it was close to the homes of the Iroquois tribes, who frequently participated. However, one of the most notable conventions occurred in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (1744).

The convention agenda was always set in advance. It sometimes involved common defense against hostile Indians or against French Canada. Often, the colonies convened to hammer out treaties with Indian tribes.

“Convention” was not the only name for these conclaves. Occasionally, they were called councils; more often congresses. (In the international practice of the time a “congress” was a diplomatic meeting of governments on equal terms.) . . . . .

For the entire history click here.

Convention Rules for a Convention of the States

Convention Rules for a Convention of the States

The convention of the states meeting in Phoenix, Arizona in September will need a set of rules. Moreover, that convention will be engaged in further rule-writing because the Arizona Legislature called it partly to suggest rules for a prospective Article V Convention for Proposing Amendments.

I suggest the planners start with the Model Rules provided here. It is an update of rules prepared by a drafting team I headed in 2015 and 2016. It offers advantages no other proposed rules have:

  • There was an extended deliberation period—about a year and a half.
  • The drafting team included two experienced constitutional lawyers and four seasoned state legislators, one of whom had served in legislative leadership in two different states.
  • The Model Rules were not the product of theory or speculation. Although updated for modern conditions, they derive directly from prior convention and legislative experience. Earlier versions worked in Philadelphia in 1787 and, under extremely difficult circumstances, at the Washington Convention of 1861.
  • These Model Rules are relatively simple.
  • We know they actually work: They were tested at a two-day simulated convention in Williamsburg, VA in 2016, where they operated almost flawlessly. Based on that experience, we had to make only very minor amendments.

Obviously, no set of rules can be taken unchanged. But I recommend these for a place to start.