While most states have some provision for a balanced budget, it seems odd that the federal government has no such requirement. That could change soon, however, and we could be closer to the 28th Amendment than many people think.
According to Article V of the United States Constitution, a convention to consider new amendments can take place when two-thirds of both Houses of Congress or two-thirds of state legislatures call for it. To date, twenty-four state legislatures have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional convention to consider a balanced budget amendment, and only ten more need to do so in order to cause such a convention to take place. It would then require approval by three-fourths of the state legislatures (or conventions in those states, depending upon the method proposed by Congress), which would amount to thirty-eight states, in order for the amendment to be ratified. Interestingly enough, a 2011 CNN ORC poll found that 74% of Americans favor a federal Balanced Budget Amendment.
One of the most vocal supporters of a Balanced Budget Amendment has been Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has recently visited several states to meet with legislative leaders in conjunction with a group known as Balanced Budget Forever. In fact, South Dakota’s lower chamber will soon vote on whether or not to become state number twenty-five to call for a convention, as a proposal made it out of committee about a week after a visit by Governor Kasich.
Let’s assume that two-thirds of the states agree to a convention, and further assume that three-quarters can actually agree on a constitutional amendment in today’s polarized political climate. What might the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment look like? Holding to the philosophy of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that the states are “laboratories of democracy”, it seems that there are at least three different models to follow, based on a 2010 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Using the states in the above report as examples, one option could be to simply require the president’s proposed budget to be balanced, as forty-three states and Puerto Rico demand of their governors. A second possibility could be to follow the lead of forty-one states and require the legislature to pass a balanced budget. Finally, there is the option to require that deficits cannot be carried over from one fiscal period to another. It should be noted that many of the states in the cited NCSL report combine all three approaches. Thus, it is not out of the realm of possibility that a hypothetical federal balanced budget amendment could do the same.
With the federal government failing to act on this issue, it would be refreshing to see the states exercise their Article V rights to do so. The exact effects of a federal balanced budget amendment are difficult to determine, as most states that have constitutional or statutory balanced budget requirements find themselves in many different positions both economically and fiscally. Additionally, the growing national debt didn’t appear overnight, and it won’t be decreased quickly by simply ratifying a balanced budget amendment. However, requiring the federal government to operate on a balanced budget would seem to be a welcome step in the right direction.