A Balanced Budget Amendment: Not so Far-Fetched

The Alexandria News reported last week that Virginia Governor McDonnell sent the General Assembly a resolution for their consideration. If passed, it would be one step toward enactment of a federal balanced budget amendment.

Remember, there are two ways to amend the Constitution. One option is for two-thirds of each federal chamber to pass it and then forward it to the states where three-fourths need to ratify it (by convention or by the legislature). This is the way all 27 amendments to the constitution have been passed. The second—so-far unused—option is for the states to get the ball rolling by calling a convention: If two-thirds of them petition Congress for a constitutional convention, then a convention must be called. It will then consider an amedment (or amendments) and if it can agree, forward these back to the states where, again, three-fourths must consent to passage.

The Virginia bill would take a stab at both methods. It calls on Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment. But, “in the event of congressional inaction,” it petitions Congress for a constitutional convention.  

The idea is not so far-fetched. After all, there have been 17 amendments to the Constitution since the Bill of Rights, which comes to around one amendment every 13 years. The most-recent took effect 19 years ago in 1992. Moreover, in 1995, the U.S. Congress came razor-close to passing a balanced-budget amendment, obtaining the requisite two-thirds of House votes and falling just one vote shy of two-thirds of all senators.

What is more, we are actually closer to the second means of amending the Constitution than you may think. David Primo writes (p. 130):

In the 1970s, thirty-one states called for a convention on the subject of a balanced budget, and Missouri did so in 1983. Since then, three states (Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana) have rescinded this request, though it is unclear whether they can do so. Depending on how the counting is done, then, only two to five more states are needed for a convention to be called.