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Solution to federal debt binge: Article V

As our national debt rockets toward $15 trillion, Americans are demanding to know how the federal government got so out of control and what can be done to apply the brakes before the U.S. crashes into bankruptcy.

The root of an unsustainable federal government is the absence of any real limit on its power to take on more debt. The best solution would be a constitutional amendment to limit the ability of Congress to continue its current practice of unilaterally raising the federal debt without any consequences.

But no one can look at history and expect Congress to restrict its own powers. Instead, state legislatures must call a convention to propose amendments that would end the federal debt binge.

The first steps toward calling a convention are under way. The Senate of the North Dakota Legislature has approved a resolution, and nine other states have introduced or are expected to consider similar measures this year.

Research by the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix, Ariz., shows this country’s founders intended for states to invoke Article V and have conventions to draft new amendments whenever the federal government failed to follow the Constitution’s basic principles of liberty and limited government.

Yet, efforts by the states since 1980 to call an amendments convention have fallen short because of fears that delegates would “run away” and try to rewrite the entire Constitution. Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, recently repeated the catchphrases of those intent on fear-mongering instead of finding solutions in her Feb. 22 WND column.

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Such claims simply ignore the recorded history of the Philadelphia convention that drafted the Constitution. Four times on Sept. 15, 1787, convention delegates rejected attempts to change Article V to allow the states to call a general or wide-open convention. They kept the language of “a convention to propose amendments” and required three-fourths of the states to ratify any proposed amendment before it became law. Later, in Federalist No. 85, Alexander Hamilton specifically distinguished between states holding a second general convention and states using the amendments convention process of Article V, urging the second approach. Similarly, James Madison’s opposition to a “general” or wide-open convention, as recounted by Mrs. Schlafly, is completely consistent with his later support of states using Article V for targeted amendments, such as the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The founders clearly want to provide the states with the same power as Congress to address specific problems by proposing limited amendments, and nothing more. Mrs. Schlafly is mistaken to think the use of the plural form “amendments” means an Article V convention can only propose to rewrite the entire Constitution. The Constitution often uses the plural form to include the singular, not to exclude it. The plural form “amendments” is also used with respect to Congress’ amendment power, and Congress routinely proposes single amendments. The same is true of an Article V convention.

Worry about runway delegates also disregards the experience of all 12 conventions between the states that have been held in this country, as documented by Robert Natelson, a retired professor of law at the University of Montana. State legislatures determine how convention delegates are selected, which guarantees that each state’s delegation would follow the will of the people as reflected by their local elected representatives. Delegates are bound by instructions from the state that sends them to a convention, or they can be recalled for exceeding their authority.

The final and most powerful protection wisely provided by the Founding Fathers is this – unless 38 of 50 states ratify a proposed amendment, nothing changes and the Constitution is untouched.

Even opponents of the Constitution recognized this fact. Patrick Henry tried to convince states to not ratify the original Constitution because he knew Article V made it impossible for an amendments convention to ever rewrite it, which Henry hoped states would do.

A runaway Article V amendments convention is a myth; a runaway Congress that has amassed $14 trillion in federal debt is a reality the states must start addressing now.


Sen. Curtis Olafson, a North Dakota Republican, is the lead sponsor of the National Debt Relief Amendment in that state legislature. Nick Dranias is director of constitutional studies at the Goldwater Institute, an independent government watchdog in Phoenix, Ariz. To read more about Article V conventions to propose amendments, visit website.