The new 97th Congress is being swamped with proposals for altering the basic law of the land. In less than a month, 83 bills have been introduced to amend the Constitution, and still more are on the way.
Some of the bills have so much momentum that they can't, as in the past, be dismissed out of hand, particlarly the big five. Those amendments call for balancing the budget, outlawing abortion, eliminating school busing for racial purposes, permitting prayer in public schools and changing the terms of the president and members of Congress.
All of these ideas have been picking up support, or at least the appearance of it, but the one with the biggest head of steam is the drive for a mandatory balanced federal budget. It is gaining not only in the polls, but in Congress and the state legislatures as well.
It is not at all improbable that the 97th Congress will finally approve such an amendment on its own or, failing to do so, may be forced to call a Constitutional Convention for that purpose upon the petition of two-thirds (34) of the states.
That has never happened in the history of the republic, but as 1980 ended, 30 state legislatures had approved the convention call, and its backers are confident of soon winning four or more additional states, nearly all of whose legislatures are now in session. Actually, in half a dozen of those bodies the call has already been approved by either the House or Senate.
Congress is well aware of the popular support (around 60 percent to 75 percent) for an enforced balanced budget. Last year, a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee did pass such a constitutional amendment, but the full committee, then dominated by Democrats, ultimately defeated it.
This year it's a different story. The Judiciary chairman is not Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, but Sen. Strom Thurmond, a sponsor of the amendment, while two Democratic opponents on the committee have been replaced by newly elected and supportive Republicans.
Many Republicans, as well as Democrats, however, shrink from calling a Constitutional Convention, fearing that it could turn into a "run-away" conclave that might write a whole new constitution from scratch instead of merely amending it.
Hence, it is quite possible that, just before of just after the 34th state adopts the proposed call, the Congress will hastily pass its own amendment, hoping thereby to avert a convention, with all of its incalculable consequences.
The chief concern over a freewheeling convention is that it might emasculate the Bill of Rights, which many regard as the heart and soul of the Constitution. As against that, the Founding Fathers, anticipating that Congress itself might become unresponsive to the popular will, established the right of the people, through their legislatures, to call for a convention.
Gore Vidal, writing in the New York Review, also reminds us that Thomas Jefferson thought there should be a Constitutional Convention at least once a generation because "laws go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." And he added:
"As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.
"We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy, as a civilized society to remain under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
There is no doubt that the state legislatures have been impressed by the argument that 226 million contemporary Americans are now living under a constitution that was written in 1787 for a rural-dominated American that then totaled only 3 million people.
Moreover, half that number could not vote because they were women, 600,000 others were excluded because they were slaves, and many of the remainder were disenfranchised because they didn't own any property. All in all, the Constitution was the product of a very small minority.
In the face of this, it is remarkable how, on the whole, the Constitution has kept up with the times, thanks in great measure to the various amendments, notably the first 10. Also, those who fret over the potential dangers of a runaway convention should be comforted by the fact that any constitutional change, in whole or part, cannot take effect until it has been ratified by three-quarters (38) of the states.
As of now, the best bet is that the 97th Congress will vote for a balanced budget amendment, thus sidetracking the call for a Constitutional Convention -- but that amendment will be riddled with loopholes. Unlike the public, a skeptical Congress has little faith that eliminating budget deficits will effectively eliminate inflation.