The Senate's vote Tuesday defeating the proposed constitutional amendment, which purports to require a balanced budget, is -- unfortunately -- not the last you may hear of this misguided proposal. The measure got 66 votes in the Senate, just one short of the two-thirds required, and its backers in the House reportedly have enough members lined up to sign a discharge petition to get it out of the Judiciary Committee and onto the floor if a decision is made to go ahead.
It may still be, depending on what state legislators in Kentucky and New Jersey do. Over the past seven years 32 state legislatures have passed, in some form or other, resolutions calling for the convening of a second constitutional convention to consider the so-called balanced budget amendment. That's just two short of the 34 that are needed to trigger a constitutional convention, and though some states have rejected it soundly it's still possible that two may not. There are plenty of unanswered questions about the legislatures' actions. Do petitions passed seven or eight years ago count? Can a state rescind its call for a convention? Do all the calls have to be worded in identical language? The danger is that despite -- or because of -- such questions Congress may be panicked, if a 34th state seems about to act, into sending to the states for ratification a balanced budget amendment of its own.
This would be a case of bad policy made in order to avoid a worse procedure. A constitutional convention is a bad idea because no one knows the limits of its powers -- and no one can. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has a bill that supposedly would limit the subject matter of a convention, but would limits imposed by a statute prevent a convention and 38 ratifying states from amending the Constitution? At the very least a convention would be a diversion of public attention from genuine issues. As Chief Justice Burger said last December, "It would be a grand waste of time to have a constitutional convention and start over."
Yet after the Senate acted last week Larry Speakes said, "It may be the president feels strongly enough about the balanced budget that he would favor a constitutional convention and take the chances as to what they would do." Fortunately, a sufficient number of senators have refused to give in to the implied threat. Four years ago two- thirds of the Senate voted such an amendment; this time, having embarked on other strategies to balance the budget, two-thirds did not. Whatever you may think of Gramm-Rudman or the Senate's current efforts to cut the deficit, this much can be said: they try to attack the deficit and balance the budget with powers Congress already has. There is nothing in the Constitution preventing this Congress and this president from balancing the budget. Monkeying around with the Constitution or, worse, threatening the irresponsible course of calling a constitutional convention to pressure Congress are either dangerous or diversionary or both.