Brian Darling

What about a constitutional convention convened for the sole purpose of adding a balanced budget amendment (BBA) to the U.S. Constitution?

Many Tea Party-minded activists are taken with the idea of a “Con Con”—and there are some strong arguments in its favor. But there are some dangers, as well. Perhaps enough to outweigh the benefits.

Article V of the Constitution puts forth two ways to change the Constitution. Under the first, Congress passes an amendment, which is then ratified by two-thirds of the States. The second route provides that Congress, “on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments.”

Proponents of a “Con Con” argue that the history shows it is virtually impossible to pass a strong Balanced Budget Amendment through the usual ratification route. BBAs have garnered two-thirds approval margins in both the House and Senate—but never in the same Congress. In 1982, a BBA passed in the Senate, but failed in the House could not garner a two thirds majority to pass. A weaker version of the current BBA failed in the Senate (by one vote!) in both 1995 and 1997.

Neither chamber of the current Congress has passed a BBA. On November 18, 2011, the House fell a few votes shy (261 to 165). The next month, a strong BBA, with provisions to prevent tax hikes from being used to achieve balance, fell way short (47 to 53) in the Senate. It certainly seems that prospects of a BBA passing Congress in the near future are grim.

Enter the Con Con. Proponents say that the Founders provided this alternative route so that the will of the American people could not be thwarted by one chamber of Congress. Today, they argue, federal lawmakers are standing in the way of balancing the budget; it’s time to go directly to the states to get a badly needed amendment.

The Con Con is certainly one way to change the Constitution, but it has never been tried. Consequently, the approach is fraught with many unknowns. Many conservatives worry that it might be able to produce only a watered-down BBA, one more likely to result in massive tax hikes rather than meaningful spending cuts. Others worry that it might stampede out of control—a “runaway convention” that wreaks all sorts of constitutional changes ranging far beyond the notion of balancing the budget.


Brian Darling

Brian Darling is a Senior Fellow in Government Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @BrianHDarling