If those changes are real, and the Republican party doesn’t find some way to court Hispanic voters, the theory goes that we should be prepared for Democratic electoral dominance being the new norm at the national level. A GOP-led House can, at best and at the risk of backlash, act as a brake on liberal government.
That’s a hard thing to get voters excited about. Conservatives hoping to restore fiscal discipline to the federal government are left with a small number of options; compromise with Democrats to find the best deal possible under the circumstances, or try to obstruct any and all attempts to grow spending.
Congress hasn’t passed a budget at all in almost three years, so it’s clear that mere obstructionism isn’t going to do the job. The problem appears too large for the governing branches to sort out. The only thing left is to tie their hands, via a balanced budget amendment.
Despite broad bipartisan support (for example Heidi Heitkamp, the new Democratic senator from North Dakota, supports one, and it was included in the GOP platform), attempts to pass one through Congress have failed, thwarted by the leadership of both parties.
That leaves one more avenue by which one could be passed under the Constitution. George Washington wrote in 1788, “It should be remembered that a constitutional door is open for such amendments as shall be thought necessary by nine States.” Two-thirds of the states would have to call for an Article V constitutional convention, the results of which would have to be ratified by three-fourths.
Though Congress has accrued a $16 trillion debt, it is unlikely to ever vote power away from itself, even the power to spend more than it takes in. Therefore it seems necessary to do so without its consent, by the states. President Eisenhower said in 1963 that such a method could be used to “reverse any trends they see as fatal to true representative government.” One assumes skyrocketing deficits and crippling debt would qualify. This has never been tried, though the idea has been brought up occasionally. The only instance in American history when an amendment was even ratified that way was the repeal of prohibition in 1933. To do so would be the strongest assertion of state power against federal power in American history.
The real key to actually pulling it off is the solid Republican advantage among governorships and state legislatures. Eighteen states have already petitioned in favor of the idea, and Republicans control 17 more. They would only need 16 to get to two-thirds. In other words, not a single Democrat-controlled state legislature would necessarily have to endorse the plan to call a convention, though it’s likely some would (and a few would be necessary to ratify whatever comes out of it). Polling indicates a majority of Democratic voters support one.
Several national legislators, including Rand Paul, have voiced support for the plan. But they matter from a tactical standpoint only insofar as they can be spokespeople. For now a BBA is a fringe issue, and it will need endorsements and cooperation to give it mainstream legitimacy. Some already have. ALEC has put out a handbook on it. And while coordinating state referendums sounds like herding cats, a Congressional Research Service study from a few weeks ago notes that it might not be that hard:
Within the past decade, interest in the Article V Convention process has reawakened: several policy advocacy organizations have publicized the Article V Convention option, particularly as an alternative to what they portray as a legislative and policy deadlock at the federal level. An important issue in the contemporary context is the fact that advances in communications technology could facilitate the emergence of technology-driven issue advocacy groups favorable to this phenomenon. … These tools could be harnessed to promote a credible campaign in a much shorter time than was the case with previous convention advocacy movements.
I’d suggest anyone interested in the history of the amendment-by-state-convention read the whole report–there’s interesting stuff in there.
There are two main objections to the plan. The first is that one can never be quite sure what’s going to come out of a constitutional convention. The second is that a balanced budget amendment would probably mean in the near-term rapid austerity and arbitrary spending cuts. You know, like the fiscal cliff–a net deficit ameliorant–but bigger.
It’s worth pointing out that had Romney won last night, this option would likely be closed–conservatives would be expected to believe that he would work to restore fiscal discipline (while increasing spending on wars and “preserving” Medicare). If the party does what it ought to do and conducts a fearless searching moral inventory asking why its candidate lost what everyone said was an eminently winnable election, it might find that doubling down on federalism and legitimate fiscal discipline might be a good path forward. At the very least it seems politically possible.