Between 1900 and 1911, 31 states petitioned Congress to call a constitutional convention to produce an amendment requiring the direct election of senators.
That was the necessary two-thirds required by the Constitution to call such a convention, but Congress did not follow the mandate. Instead, the lawmakers proposed the measure themselves, and in 1912 it became the 17the Amendment to the Constitution.
To this day, scholars debate whether that Congress acted because of the petitions or the general mood of the country.
But there is virtually no debate about the feelings of the current Congress on convening a convention to consider an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. It does not like the idea.
Nevertheless, such calls have come from 25 states -- 26 if you count Nevada where the legislature passed one that was vetoed in 1977, or 27 if you count Indiana, whose vote 22 years ago may no longer by valid.
This year the National Taxpayers Union here is quarterbacking a drive to get petitions passed in 34 states, the requisite two-thirds, and David Keating, who heads the effort, says he thinks it will succeed by June.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they do it," said Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution. Bayh does not hide his dismay at the prospect of convening a convention to propose an amendment.
"It would make the Ringling Brothers Big Top look like the minor leagues," he said.
Noting that many of the states' petitions tell Congress to pass a balancedbudget amendment if Congress wants to avoid a convention, Bayh said his subcommittee would hold hearings by the end of this month on various balanced-budget proposals, statutes as well as amendments, that his colleagues are offering.
"There's a question of what the states really want," he added. "My own state legislature is in the process of passing a petition for a constitutional amendment. It also tells me it doesn't want Congress to cut off the federal funds that go to Indiana.
"A lot of states are doing the same thing. On the other, it's 'gimme, gimme.' On the other, it's 'let's end the deficit,' which we would easily do by cutting aid to state and local governments."
Bayh said he favors, a measure that would require "a balancing of accounts over a five-year period," but not an amendment.
Grover Norquist, executive director of the taxpayers union, said his organization wants an amendment because "anything less would not be binding on future congresses." The resolutions introduced this year in 27 state legislatures would give Congress until the end of next year to propose a budget amendment.
"If they don't do it by the end of next year, we'll force a convention," Norquist said. "It would be limited to the one subject, and, as with any amendment that Congress proposes, 38 states would have to ratify before it could become law."
But forcing a convention may not be easy. Even if the necessary number of states approves petitions calling for a convention, it is not clear that Congress would do so. One reason is that Congress has never passed rules establishing how a convention would be called, how delegates would be chosen or how many votes would be required to propose an amendment.
Former senator Sam J. Ervin (D-n.c/.) came up with some rules, which the Senate -- but not the House -- passed twice, in 1971 and 1973. They said there should be one delegate from each congressional district and two chosen at large from each state and that a two-thirds vote would be required to approve an amendment. Similar measures are now being proposed by Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.) and Reps. Henry J. Hyde and Robert McClory, both Illinois Republicans.
Another problem is that not all the states that have passed petitions for a convention have sent them to Congress. So far, the Senate has received 17; the House, 16.
"The attitude of Congress is: 'We don't count them unless we have them,'" said Meredith McCoy, a lawyer with the Congressional Research Service. "Many members of Congress have asked for data on the convention process. There's a lot of scholarly material, but there are no rules. No one knows anything for sure," she said.
The 25 states that have passed convention resolutions are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.
Nevada Assembly Speaker Paul May said he does not count his state in that group because of the governor's veto two years ago of a similar resolution. "But we should pass another one by the end of February," he said.
This year resolutions have passed one house in Indiana, Idaho, Iowa and California. In California, Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy strongly opposes the measure, and NTU's David Keating says, "It's a rough battle. We can't tell yet if it will pass."