Guest Editorials


Time for a constitutional convention?

tom tancredoThe Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare sends a powerful message to the American people, but one the court never intended: In the struggle to safeguard our liberties, politicians have failed and the Supreme Court has failed. It’s time to trust the people.

What do I mean, to “trust the people?” It’s simple: The founders provided a means within the Constitution to allow us to halt runaway spending and bring the federal government under control. It’s called a constitutional convention, specifically, an “Article V Convention.”

Unlike the convention of 1787, whose participants wrote a totally new constitution, a convention called under Article V of the U.S. Constitution would be limited to one subject, so it could not become a “runaway convention” as some people fear. Once a successful Article V convention is held and its proposed amendment adopted, other conventions could follow, each limited to one topic.

So, the first question is, what should be the subject of the convention? What issue can successfully mobilize and channel the public outrage over out-of-control federal spending and the $16 trillion-plus federal debt? Well, what better topic than a plan to control the growth of that federal debt?

That plan is found in the National Debt Relief Amendment. The proposed amendment was authored by North Dakota state Sent. Curtis Olafson, and contains only 18 words:
“An increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.”

That’s it. Simple, concrete, concise and revolutionary.

The amendment is being championed by the Tenth Amendment Center and a group of state legislators led by its author, Sen. Olafson. It has passed in two states and has been introduced in over 20 others. To succeed in its goal, a resolution calling for a convention must be enacted in exactly the same form by two-thirds of state legislatures.

I can think of some objections to the amendment proposal, but all of them can be answered. Here are four objections sure to be raised.

Is it needed? Why not continue to let Congress debate the debt issue and then authorize a new debt ceiling every two or three years? That question answers itself.

Second, if adopted as an amendment to the Constitution, will it achieve its stated goal of controlling the growth of the federal debt? Well, first let’s be clear about the goal. The amendment does not prohibit an increase in the national debt; it merely requires approval of a majority of the states to do so. In a genuine national emergency, that approval could be easily obtained. The amendment will achieve one vital goal: to put an end to the circus we have witnessed in recent decades, whereby Congress rubber stamps the continued increase in the national debt to allow a never-ending growth in federal spending.

Can an Article V convention be limited to a single topic and a single amendment? Yes. The fear of a “runaway convention” is a scarecrow, not a real menace. In the event the convention tried to go beyond its mandate and adopt other proposals, those proposed amendments would still need to be ratified by three-fourths of the 50 state legislatures. That requirement is another effective check on the threat of a runaway convention.

But consider the alternative. How does that imagined danger compare to the real, manifest danger we are already experiencing? We now have a “runaway Congress” that accepts no boundaries to its taxing and spending powers, a Supreme Court that does not feel bound by the letter of the Constitution and a president who wants to govern by decree.

A third objection is a purely political one, and it is the only one with some merit. Isn’t this an impossible goal? How can we ever get this proposed amendment passed in 34 state legislatures and then ratified in 38 legislatures? The answer is that there are no guarantees in politics. It will be up to We the People to accomplish that goal.

The political organization that will be required to pass the amendment in 34 states has an additional virtue beneficial to our political health. That battle will force citizens across the nation to confront state lawmakers about their growing dependence on federal funds. In state after state, federal funds now make up half or more of the state budget. The dirty little secret of the debt debate is that state legislatures and state bureaucrats are deeply complicit in the growth of the national debt. So, they must be forced to play a role in controlling that debt.

Conservatives and constitutionalists must confront the ultimate question of republican government: What happens if “the people” become so corrupted that permanent majorities accept and celebrate a government that has become the master and not the servant of the people? What if the American people are already so corrupted by government spending that a simple mechanism for controlling spending and public debt cannot win public approval? In that case, we have already passed the point of no return.

But that’s what constitutional government is about, folks. We do not depend on someone else to defend our basic liberties: When the chips are down, we do it ourselves.

Here’s the bottom line: If we do not have the courage and the political power to push this simple amendment through 34 state legislatures, then we do not have the political power to prevent the end of constitutional government in the United States.

Is this amendment an alternative to taking control of Congress and the White House through the ballot box? Of course not. We need this amendment even if Mitt Romney is sitting in the White House and regardless of how many votes your favorite party has in Congress. Both major parties have contributed to the mess we are in and need an institutional reform to curtail the abuse of Congress’ spending powers.

Tom Tancredo is the founder of the Rocky Mountain Foundation and founder and co-chairman of Team America PAC. He is also a former five-term congressman and presidential candidate. Tancredo is the author of "In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America's Border and Security."