REVERSING THE usual procedure, U.S. senators are now lobbying local party officials and state legislators on an issue of national importance -- whether the states should summon a constitutional convention to pass an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. It's a matter of some urgency, since 32 out of the 34 required state legislatures have, in some way or other, called for such a convention, and because in at least one state, Florida, there's a move to rescind that state's 1976 resolution.

With so much at stake, it's worth examining the arguments addressed to state legislators, notably those of Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), which evidently persuaded the Florida senate to defer its rescission resolution. The senators make two seriously misleading arguments.

The first is that a rescission resolution would undermine what Mr. Hatch and Mr. DeConcini portray as the just-about-to-be-successful drive to get Congress to pass a so-called balanced budget amendment. This is disingenuous. The House is not about to provide the two-thirds vote needed for this bit of constitutional tomfoolery. And even if it were, it wouldn't be deterred by a state's rescission. The two senators say that if 34 states called for a convention, Congress would be pressured into passing an amendment itself. Maybe, maybe not. It's not that easy to write one that would allow deficit spending sometimes (during wartime and recessions) and forbid deficit spending at other times. If it were easy, Congress would have done it long ago.

The second misleading argument is that we don't have to worry about a runaway convention because Congress is just about to pass a bill governing constitutional conventions and limiting this one to a single subject. Congress hasbeen considering such bills since the 1960s; none has ever passed the House, and the last time one passed the Senate was in 1973. Such legislation is a good idea, and would make a convention less like a game of Russian roulette. But all kinds of people -- from opponents of the convention to opponents of abortion -- tend to gang up to oppose it.

The senators' arguments inadvertently show why their convention and their amendment are bad ideas: because they are sure to divert Americans' attention from useful public business -- such as balancing the budget.