State initiated amendment, potentially an American first, crosses key threshold
NEW ORLEANS, La. – An amendment that would mandate state approval of federal debt has achieved a major milestone towards ratification. On Thursday, North Dakota became the first state legislature to approve a convention for ratification of the National Debt Relief Amendment.
With a 68 to 24 majority, the North Dakota House of Representatives joined their Senate counterparts and called for a limited amendments convention pursuant to Article V of the U.S. Constitution.
At least seven other states, including Louisiana, either have pending resolutions or legislative sponsors for the same proposed amendment. Rep. Kirk Talbot (R – River Ridge) and Rep. Nick Lorusso (R – New Orleans) have agreed to introduce the NDRA resolution into the Louisiana legislature, which reads:
“An increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States.”
State and federal executive branches have no authority in the process, so North Dakota’s resolution goes directly to Congress. If 33 more state legislatures submit an equivalent resolution, an amendments convention will result. Any subsequent amendment would then need approval from 38 states for ratification.
James Booth is cofounder of restoringfreedom.org, which drafted and promotes the NDRA. He says the initiative seeks to remove Congress’s ability to unilaterally raise its debt ceiling, currently at $14.3 trillion, without debate at the state level.
Booth believes North Dakota’s leadership is noteworthy, since it is one of the most fiscally responsible governments in the country. Only North Dakota and Montana, for example, have not faced a budget shortfall in the past three fiscal years. And North Dakota is one of only six states without a projected budget shortfall for fiscal year 2012.
North Dakota State Senator Curtis Olafson (R – Edinburg), who sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 4007, says federal debt is “an imminent threat to the very sovereignty of our nation” and not a partisan issue.
“We have changed people and we have changed parties and the problem continues to grow… The problem is systemic and the system and the ground rules need to be changed.” (Read his full testimony here, and click below to hear an audio interview with Olafson – seven minutes.)
“It was critical that some state be the first one to pass [the NDRA], and what better state than North Dakota.” Legislators in other states, he says, are reluctant to be the first. “But here in North Dakota we don’t wait for somebody else to do something… We are not afraid to be the first to adopt it.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council, the nation’s largest nonpartisan association of state legislators, has endorsed the NDRA and in January released model legislation. Noble Ellington (R – Winnsboro), a third Louisiana representative, is chair of ALEC, and he too has voiced his support for the National Debt Relief Amendment.
Additionally, the Goldwater Institute, a nonpartisan Arizona-based policy institute, has lead educational events and published research on how the amendments convention would proceed.
While official federal debt is $14.3 trillion, roughly equal to the entire American economy, other credible estimates go as high as $200 trillion. These disparate estimates account for unfunded liabilities such as Social Security and Medicare, and they point to a potential vulnerability of the NDRA.
Steven Sheffrin, an economics professor at Tulane University, believes an enforceable balanced budget amendment, flexible enough to handle recessions, slowdowns, and other adverse economic events is virtually impossible to write.
“The modern budget with all its categories… is too complex to be handled by a simple constitutional amendment,” says Sheffrin. “Congress could easily evade any language by reconfiguring budget categories. Courts could perhaps prevent this, but only at the expense of injecting judicial activism into legislative affairs.”
Many organizations that support restrained federal debt harbor fears of a runaway amendments convention – that it could radically change the U.S. Constitution. The John Birch Society and the Eagle Forum, for example, have worked against NDRA resolutions in Utah, Missouri, and Arizona. Matthew Spalding, a constitutional scholar with the Heritage Foundation, has also described the Article V process as dubious, unpredictable, and inclined to ongoing litigation.
Booth says restoringfreedom.org and the Goldwater Institute are working to debunk the “myths” surrounding the amendments convention. (Click below for one of restoringfreedom.org’s such videos.)
“I have asked those that fear the process to provide me with a list of 38 states that would ratify a dangerous, destructive, or harmful amendment many times, but they cannot…” He notes that in the late 1980s the Heritage Foundation asserted the Article V process “actually may be the safer method” and sought to refute “unfounded” fears.
Olafson goes further and believes organizations hostile to an Article V convention are fear mongering “to empower themselves, to finance themselves, and to justify their existence to their supporters. It’s their marketing tool.”
“They need to recognize and acknowledge this undeniable fact: unless and until 38 states ratify a proposed amendment, the Constitution is untouched and nothing changes… This myth [of a runaway convention] will eventually be put to rest and proven to be totally baseless,” he says.
Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and editor of The Pelican Post. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and one can follow him on twitter.