The drive to call a constitutional convention to pass an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget is sputtering to a halt, at least a temporary one. Backers of the convention had hoped that this year, with all of the nation's legislatures in session, they could raise the number that have called for a convention from 32 to the required 34. But as the spring legislative season ends, the number is still stuck at 32, fortunately. In fact, convention advocates were put on the defensive in Florida, where they faced a move in the Senate to rescind the state's 1976 resolution calling for the convention.
The fight is still not over, of course, and backers of the convention assure one and all they'll come out fighting as legislatures get down to tough business next fall. No doubt they will. But the problems they've encountered are likely to remain, for they reflect the fundamental weaknesses of the proposal. Back in the days when five or 10 or even 20 states had passed such resolutions, it was easy to get legislators to vote for a convention; there are always politicians on the lookout for a cheap shot. But getting the 33rd and 34th states is harder. Now legislators are thinking about what a convention would -- or could -- do, and they don't altogether like the possibilities.
Some of the state resolutions purport to limit a convention to the balanced budget amendment, but there is nothing really to stop a convention from proposing whatever it likes. Legislators have been hearing sometimes shrill warnings that a convention would do anything from prohibiting all abortions (not a total impossibility) to enrolling the United States in a one-world government (don't bet on it). True, no such amendment could be effective without being ratified by 38 states. But i's by no means irresponsible for legislators to worry about the diversion from urgent political tasks that would be caused simply by the raising of such issues in such a forum.
A similar argument can be made against the balanced budget amendment itself. It is a measure that would either be so rigid as to prevent deficits when they might be helpful or so easily circumvented as to promote evasion and cynicism. It is proposed by a president who has produced the nation's largest deficits and is unable even to promise a balanced budget at some date in the future. Serious legislators are beginning to see that a convention, like the amendment, would be either dangerous or ludicrous. There is good reason to expect, and every reason to hope, that the drive for a new constitutional convention will continue to sputter.