State lawmakers are considering a misguided proposal that could help put Georgia and our entire nation on a very dangerous path. Senate Resolution 736, sponsored by Senator Cecil Staton, would call on Congress to convene a national constitutional convention to enact a balanced budget amendment and other stiff restrictions on federal spending. Similar proposals are popping up across the nation, and if 34 states pass them, Congress must act on the call.
Although everyone agrees that Congress needs to get its fiscal house in order, convening a so-called “convention of states” is the wrong way to go. It would have several unintended consequences that could critically undermine Georgia’s economy, public services and civil liberties.
The first thing to understand is that calling a constitutional convention would throw our country into a period of extreme turmoil not seen in decades, or maybe ever. That is because mainstream legal opinion is clear: once a constitution convention is called, neither states nor Congress have the power to limit its actions. Delegates will literally be free to consider any changes to the Constitution they see fit, ranging from changes to the First and Second amendments, to new proposals like overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on campaign spending or enacting a large, permanent minimum wage. Any new amendments attractive enough to garner support from at least 38 states would become the law of the land.
This risk of a “runaway convention” is why conservatives have traditionally opposed calling a convention of states and why Georgia chose to rescind its earlier application in 2004. As former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger, an appointee of President Richard Nixon once wrote: “Whatever gain might be hoped for from a new Constitutional Convention could not be worth the risks involved. A new Convention could plunge our Nation into constitutional confusion and confrontation at every turn, with no assurance that focus would be on the subjects needing attention.”
Even if a convention stuck to a specific agenda, enacting a federal balanced budget could seriously harm Georgia’s economy and public services. Georgia receives millions in federal dollars each year to help fund its schools, roads, hospitals and other services. A balanced budget amendment would force Congress to make deep cuts to all aspects of government, but federal support for the states would be especially vulnerable. Having already slashed education and other state services to the bone in recent years, Georgia can’t afford the additional cuts a federal balanced budget amendment would require.
Some people argue that if states and families have to balance their budgets, why can’t Congress do the same? That comparison leaves out some essential facts. A federal balanced budget amendment would allow Congress to spend only those funds it collects in each single specific year, which is a far tighter straightjacket than states and families are held to. Georgia lawmakers routinely issue debt instruments that allow them to make long-term investments in the future, such as bonds for deepening the Savannah port or constructing new school facilities. And anyone who’s ever made a family budget knows it makes sense to save or take on reasonable debt to buy things you can’t afford with a single year’s salary, such as a new home or a child’s college education.
Whatever your opinions about a balanced budget amendment, perhaps we can at least agree that calling a constitutional convention for the first time in 227 years is misguided. Such a radical process would imperil the foundation of American democracy, our federal Constitution, which continues to serve us well today.