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Constitutional Changes?: Tennessee's Bold Move
02/25/2017 Budget Andrew S
keywords: Constitutional Amendment

Though changes to the Constitution almost always involve cooperation between Congress and state legislatures, states technically have the power to amend it on their own. The Tennessee senate has recently voted to exert this power, raising fears of a constitutional crisis:

The Initiative In Depth

In a vote of 27 to 3, the Tennessee state senate approved a resolution to amend the US Constitution. The amendment specifies that Congress cannot pass budget resolutions that are not balanced. This would essentially make it illegal for the Federal government to run a deficit, requiring increases in government spending to be matched with new revenues.

The Tennessee senate is attempting to take advantage of a lesser-known provision for constitutional changes. Under Article V of the Constitution, there are two ways to propose an amendment. Either two thirds of the members of both houses of Congress must vote for it, or 34 state legislatures can pass a resolution to draft it on their own. Since the original Constitution was passed, all successful amendments have relied on the former method. Legally, however, both methods are valid.

Political Prognosis

There have been many efforts to pass balanced budget amendments in the United States, some dating back to the 1970s. What sets this initiative apart, however, is that the party proposing it has unprecedented power at the state level. The GOP currently controls 32 state legislatures, while splitting control with the Democrats in 6 more states. Republicans will thus have an easier time gaining support from 34 legislatures than they ever did before.

Even if Tennessee succeeds in calling a convention, they are unlikely to pass a balanced budget amendment. Once an amendment is drafted, it must be ratified by 38 states, which would require at least 6 Democratic-controlled legislative houses to vote in favor; Democrats are unlikely to vote in favor for a variety of reasons.

Moreover, many fear that simply calling a constitutional convention would present a serious risk to the country. Once the states have assembled for a convention, they can propose any changes to the Constitution that they want or even scrap it entirely. Although radical constitutional changes are unlikely, many do not want to take the risk, which is why even prominent conservatives like the late Antonin Scalia have opposed calling conventions. These fears may dampen support for the effort, convincing even Republican-controlled legislatures to vote against it and fight the deficit in other ways. Thus the convention may not happen, but if it does, it could lead to a serious crisis.

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