Last week, South Dakota became the 25th state to pass a resolution calling for a convention to amend the United States Constitution. Led by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the Balanced Budget Forever movement aims to pass an amendment requiring the federal government to maintain a balanced budget and cease excessive borrowing.
Allowing for a deficit only in extreme circumstances such as war or economic collapse, the amendment would mitigate the culture of excessive spending in Washington.
The U.S. national debt, exceeding $18 trillion, is now greater than the nation’s GDP. The last time this occurred was in the 1940s, following World War II and the Great Depression. When President George Bush left office in 2008, the debt represented under 65 percent of the GDP. When President Jimmy Carter left office in 1980, the debt was only 31.8 percent of the GDP.
The rapidly climbing debt is not sustainable for a number of reasons. First, as the debt continues to grow, a larger portion of the budget must be dedicated to making interest payments on the debt. This affects the amount of money that can be appropriated to discretionary spending, including education, defense and other programs.
Eventually, interest payments could exceed the total budget. The government will need to borrow even more money to fund anything, including non-discretionary spending such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As the nation’s reputation progressively weakens, so does its borrowing power. This means that interest rates will skyrocket, and defaulting will be the only solution. This is exactly what happened in Greece, culminating in the nation’s economic collapse in 2008.
Congress’ inability to independently balance the budget indicates a lack of restraint by the federal government. The proposed amendment would stop the current trend, forcing the federal government to reign in spending and control the growth of the debt. The magnitude of support for the amendment is a strong indication of growing popular support for fiscal responsibility.
The support of 34 states (two-thirds) is required to call a convention, so only nine more are needed for the proposal to move forward. Three-quarters support is required to pass an amendment.
Article V of the Constitution describes two ways to propose an amendment. Congress can submit an amendment to state legislatures for ratification, or the state legislatures may call for a convention. None of the 27 amendments to the United States Constitution have been ratified by the second method.
There are still many ambiguities about how such convention would function because it is the first of its kind. For example, the possibility exists that other changes could be made to the Constitution beyond the intended balanced budget amendment. Montana’s legislature rejected the proposal to call for the Article V convention for this very reason.
“What we need to do is hang on to the Constitution that we have and grip it very closely to our chest,” Rep. Bill Harris of Montana said.
Interestingly, the argument against calling the convention is the same as the argument for it. Proponents hope to restrict federal power while opponents, such as Montana, fear an increase of federal power were a convention to be held. In other words, the potential threat to the Constitution outweighs the benefit of the proposed amendment.
Still, the overwhelming popular support for lower debt is visible across the country. Even in California, which has not supported the amendment, Gov. Jerry Brown politicized the state’s 2014 “surplus” in an attempt to gain traction for his next election. Last year’s surplus of $4.2 billion pales in comparison to the state’s debt of over $450 billion, but his presentation of the state’s newfound fiscal responsibility was well-received.
The largest accomplishment of Brown’s balanced budget is the same hope of the proposed amendment’s backers: to stop the bleeding. The first step in lowering the debt is to halt its growth.
Because of his push for fiscal responsibility at both the state and federal levels, Kasich has been wildly popular across party lines as governor of Ohio. Having pummeled his Democratic opponent in his gubernatorial reelection last year, he is likely on his way toward a presidential run in 2016. His ability to win the hotly contested battleground state of Ohio would be a great advantage amidst a crowded GOP candidate pool.
The extensive popular support for Kasich reveals that the public desires a change in political culture. It seems that fiscal responsibility is popular everywhere except Washington. If the states are able to force the federal government to address its spending addiction, then the debt might finally be addressed. Financial stability, as well as sustainability, could eventually become reality if federal power is restrained.
Dylan Bordonaro is a junior politics major. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spopolmedia.