Constitutional Bypass: Tennessee Joins Effort to Impose Spending Limits on National Congress

There is no stronger evidence that Washington isn't listening to the folks back home than the oblivious attitude toward the tsunami gathering force out here in the heartland.

Tennessee is voting to become the 22nd state to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to enact a balanced budget to the U.S. Constitution. It only takes 34 states to get it done. Such an amendment passed by a convention and ratified by two-thirds of the states would become law and the president and the Congress have no say in the matter.

It is a quirk of our system that states have power all out of proportion to the number of people who live in them. For example, California has 38 million people, one in eight Americans live there. It has two senators. North Dakota has 700,000 people. It has two senators. Wyoming, Alaska, Montana are hardly populated at all compared to blue states on the west and east coast—but they each have two senators.

More significantly, all the lightly populated states in the middle of the country and in the South each have a legislature and the power to call for a constitutional convention. It is entirely possible for small- to medium-sized conservative states to call for a convention and impose the idea on the rest of the country, no matter the size of big blue-state delegations. A minority of the population can force a convention to amend the Constitution as long as they have enough state legislatures to vote with them.

The movement for a constitutional amendment seems to be little noted inside the Beltway by incumbent members of Congress, the chattering classes, and national media organizations. After all, the Constitution has not been amended in this manner since the Constitution was ratified. It doesn't mean the method is not still there in Article V, giving the states the power to dictate to the federal government.

Constitutional conventions are scary. I shudder to think what sort of mischief could occur. It is possible for them to run away and do things organizers never intended. You may recall from history that our Constitution and form of government came out of a convention that was called to reform the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of what? Exactly.

Tennessee has put in safeguards in its resolution dictating that delegates to a national convention follow the specific directions given them by the state legislature and not take part in a "run away" convention. But some legal scholars question whether delegates can be controlled by the folks back home any more than their congressional delegation.

There are also conservatives who worry that an amendment requiring a balanced budget, except in time of war or deep recession, could be disastrous. There are two ways to balance a budget. You can cut spending. But you can also raise taxes.

Tennessee voters supposedly put a cap on budget increases 35 years ago, in that the budget, even when balanced, cannot exceed the rise in the state's personal income rate. But it takes the same number of votes to exceed the cap as it does to pass the budget. A simple majority. It has been exceeded as many times as it has been observed.

How the federal budget could be required to be balanced seems to me to be similarly problematic. Revenue forecasts, economic growth, and employment numbers could be gamed by federal agencies and the Congress. Not to mention the times when we have a series of natural disasters or we need to jump up and send a billion-dollar aid package to the Ukraine.

But economic experts and the U.S. Congress could get together and come up with a plan and send it to the states for ratification. But if they continue to ignore the issue, they shouldn't be surprised if the states send them a plan—and one that puts them in a spending straightjacket.

Congressmen have a choice. Do it on their terms, with expert help, or sit by while a mob of tax-cutting, budget-cutting fanatics rewrite the Constitution.

Your call.