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Power to the People -- How to Balance the Budget

Americans are asserting their right of self-government with enthusiasm we have not seen in years. Many have participated in public rallies like those during the fight for independence more than two centuries ago. Others have made their voices heard through social networks, blogs, and other technologies of the modern era. Millions have already participated in competitive primaries across the nation. They have made clear that if Washington does not change its ways, then they will change Washington this November.

The midterm elections are only one way the American people are seeking to reform their government. Earlier this year, Florida legislators made the Sunshine State the latest to invoke Article V of the Constitution, by calling for a constitutional convention to restore some of the checks and balances that the Founders intended but which Washington is ignoring.

More than three dozen states have petitioned Congress to call a convention to propose reforms, and a recent conference of state legislators brought together many leaders looking to add their states to this movement. Recent polling suggests that a plurality of Americans support a convention to propose a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution if Congress will not do so.

A Balanced Budget Amendment has been linked to the idea of a constitutional convention for a simple reason: Congress refuses to restrain government spending. Our national debt is now more than $13 trillion, and has increased by more than 25 percent since the beginning of the Obama administration. We are spending more than $30,000 per household, and borrowing more than 40 cents of every dollar we spend. 

Under the president’s budget, our public debt will reach 63 percent of our economy by the end of this year and will be 90 percent of our economy in just ten years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

A Balanced Budget Amendment would force Congress to keep spending in line with the people’s willingness to pay for it, yet the United States Senate has refused even to debate the proposed amendment that I and other colleagues have sponsored.

This kind of congressional inaction gravely concerned the Founders. They foresaw that Congress might resist limits on federal power. So they included the constitutional convention process to give the people the opportunity to propose amendments without congressional pre-approval. The Founders also required that three-quarters of the state legislatures must approve any amendment to our Constitution. That high standard remains in place to guard against radical changes to our form of government or other measures without very broad popular support.

A constitutional convention would be part of a national conversation that could last well beyond one or two election cycles. The very length of the convention and ratification process would allow the American people ample opportunity to judge proposed reforms, and ensure that they would strengthen the checks and balances that have served our nation well.

In an era when Congress passes sweeping bills before many members even have a chance to read them, a deliberative approach to governance would be a refreshing change for most of us.

At the same time, popular support for a constitutional convention can also spur Congress to take action on reforms that are currently being ignored. The prospect of another constitutional convention prompted Congress to adopt the Bill of Rights. Other movements to call conventions resulted in the direct election of Senators nearly a century ago, and major budget reforms in the 1980s. Today’s convention movement could keep the pressure on Congress to bring the Balanced Budget Amendment to the floors of both houses, and then to the states.

Some in Washington fear popular movements to amend our Constitution, when they deserve our respect. After all, “We the People” established our Constitution in the first place, and we have amended it more than two dozen times to protect our liberties and make Washington function better. The people are not a threat to our government, but its ultimate source of legitimacy and its greatest hope for needed reforms.

Republican John Cornyn represents Texas in the United States Senate.

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Republican John Cornyn represents Texas in the United States Senate where he serves on the Judiciary Committee. He is a former state attorney general.