Attorney General Griffin B. Bell believes Congress can set limits on what kind of amending a constitutional convention could do.
Bell, in an interview Saturday, said the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel is preparing an opinion on the much-debated question made pressing by the surge of state legislature resolutions calling for a convention to consider an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.
Utah last week became the 25th state to petition for a convention. Nevada's legislature passed such a resolution in 1977 but it was vetoed. The legislature is expected to pass another such resolution this month. Petitions from 34 states would be needed to summon a convention. California Gov-Edmund G. (Jerry)Brown Jr. endorses the method.
A major argument of some opponents to a constitutional convention is that no limits could be set on its authority, leading to the possibility of a wholesale rewriting of the Constitution. Yesterday Sen. Paul Laxalt (R. Nev.) on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM) voiced fears that such a convention could "lose control" and upset the basic provisions of the Constitution. He said legal experts he had consulted think it would be difficult to limit a convention agenda to one subject.
Bell does not share such fears.
"I absolutely do think limits can be set," he said. "I think Congress has a duty to do so."
Terrence B. Adamson, a special assistant to Bell, said a draft of the opinion Bell requested had suggested there was legal authority for the proposition that limits could be set. But he said the opinion was "ambiguous." Bell "wrote questions all over" the draft and sent it back for more work, Adamson said.
Senate Majority leader Robert C Byrd (D-W.Va.) said Saturday that Congress might enact a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget if the required 34 state legislatures petition for a convention.
Article V of the Constitution provides two methods for initiating constitutional amendments. The one used exclusively since the Constitution was adopted in 1787 has been by congressional initiative, which requires approval by a two-thirds majority in each house.
Whichever method is used -- congressional intiative or constitutional convention -- a proposed amendment must be ratified by legislatures or conventions in three-fourths of the states.
A Senate judiciary subcommittee headed by Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) is expected to begin hearings soon to reexamine bills that the Senate passed in 1971 and 1973 that would have imposed guidelines on what a convention could do.
Both bills, drafted by former senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.), died in the House, where opposition appears to be based on the theory that setting limits would encourage state legislatures to call for a convention by removing the deterrent of fear over what it might do to the Constitution.