Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Senator Emmett Hanger's Huntin' and Peckin'

Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Mount Solon) says he'll introduce legislation demanding Congress call a constitutional convention to consider a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. Hanger believes the federal government needs to balance its budget or "... the economy will continue to deteriorate over time and we won't be the economic power we've historically been."
People can have various views about the wisdom of such an amendment. Many conservatives have long called for the federal government to balance the budget (bit of irony here as two of the biggest budget busters are darlings of conservatives: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush). Some of these same folks also call for abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard. Others point to the need of the federal government to borrow in time of national emergency such as war (excuse me Adolph, can we take a few days off because we are out of money) or economic collapse (Obama's rescue plan). 
The truth is, Congress must have the flexibility in times of crisis, but Congress must also have the discipline to not spend like a drunken sailor (apologies to sailors). Recent attempts to bring that discipline resulted in the Graham-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act in 1985. When parts of that law were found unconstitutional, Congress pass the Budget Enforcement Act in 1990 which expired in 2002. Budgets were actually balanced in the late 1990s under President Clinton and a Republican controlled Congress.
All of this is complicated by entitlement programs like Social Security and by the politics of legislation where earmarks and pork barrel spending. To get a handle on wasteful spending, many have urged that the President have the power of line-item veto. The Republican controlled Congress gave this power, by simple legislation, to President Clinton. The Supreme Court held it was an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers and the line-item veto could only be granted by constitutional amendment.
So, would a balanced budget amendment be a good thing? Guess it depends! I am glad that Congress has the ability to respond with fiscal policy to our current deepening recession. But, it would would have been nice if Congress had said to President Bush, "Gee George, we just don't have a few extra trillions for your illegal war." Any proposed amendment would likely contain an ability of Congress to override its commands with a supermajority of 3/5s or 2/3s.
Is the idea of calling a constitutional convention a good one? We've never had a constitutional convention to propose amendments, so there are numerous unanswered questions. Article V of the Constitution says: "Congress... on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments ..."
Some (there are many more) of these questions are:
  • How timely does the "application of the legislatures" need to be? Does Congress have to respect such an application made two years ago? Twenty years ago? Or must the applications be within a term of Congress?
  • Can a state legislature rescind an application?
  • If (huge if) Congress did call a constitutional convention how would states be represented? Equally as in the Constitutional Convention that wrote the original document or by population similar to the House of Representatives?
  • How would delegates to the convention be chosen? Appointed by the state legislature and/or governor or elected by the people of the state?
  • Could Congress limit the scope of the convention to a balanced budget amendment or would the convention exercise its own authority and propose amendments on topics such as prayer in school or abortion? Could it rewrite the whole Constitution? If we look at record the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the convention would only be limited by what it thinks could potentially be ratified.
Although this method has never been used to propose a constitutional amendment, it may be used as political muscle to force Congress to act by either proposing an amendment itself (2/3s vote in each house), by passing legislation (like Graham-Rudman-Hollings), or by finding the political will to act more responsibly (at least until the current outrage passes).
Remember that proposing an amendment is the first step, as amendments must be ratified by 3/4s (currently 38) of the state legislatures (usual method) or at conventions held in each state (21st Amendment). Congress (or the national convention?) selects the method of ratification.
So, what is Senator Hanger's motive in introducing this "application" and pushing the idea. He has to know the odds of there actually being a constitutional convention are extremely long. Perhaps he feels like this is one way to push Congress into acting. Perhaps he hopes to generate public outrage about federal deficits and the growing federal debt.
Or perhaps all this is much closer to home. Senator Hanger remains an outcast within his own party, many of whom see him as too moderate. Some even call him gasp a liberal. Perhaps all of this is mostly about repairing the Senator's reputation and image among the right wing Republicans who will control the fate of his renomination in 2011. Perhaps it is politics 101 - saving his own seat?


Bill Walker said...

A brief comment. The chances of a convention are not long at all. If you go to you'll be able to read all of the 650 plus applications from all 50 states for an Article V Convention.

The question is not have the states applied, but why has Congress refused to obey the Constitution?

You can learn about an Article V Convention at and find the answers to the questions presented in this article. In sum, you'll find that a convention is a safe constitutional method of amendment proposal and critics to the contrary are wrong.

Belle Rose said...

Thanks for your comment Bill. And for the website which I visited. I disagree, the odds are very long - maybe because Congress will always find ways to ignore the applications for the reasons I stated (and others). Yes, foavc "answers" the questions, but not everyone would agree with those answers. Bottom line, it is highly unlikely Congress will relinquish its power to propose amendments.

Still the process can play a role in pushing Congress to act, as it did in the 17th Amendment or Graham-Rudman.

On the specific issue of a balanced budget amendment, I heard some interesting polling and discussion on MSNBC - in summary, Americans don't really care and deficits and the national debt (they do care about their personal debt), they just want the government to fix the economy. So, the balanced budget argument mostly falls on deaf ears, except for conservative Republicans and a few deficit-hawk Democrats. So, we're back full circle to my original point - this is political posturing on Hanger's part.