Quixotic Plan to Amend U.S. Constitution Passes Texas House

Rep. Richard Raymond
Rep. Richard Raymond

After about half an hour of debate Friday, House lawmakers passed House Joint Resolution 79, by Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin). The resolution requests that Congress convene a convention of states to consider amending the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget. Though little more than a huffy paper protest, the Legislature is fond of such exercises blasting the feds.

HJR 79 requests that Congress call a convention “for the limited purpose of proposing an amendment to the constitution to provide for a federal balanced budget.”

While mostly Republicans supported the resolution, which passed 100-40, Rep. Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) co-authored the legislation and more than a dozen Democrats voted for it.

“The deficit is bad for the economy, and it won’t get fixed without an amendment,” Raymond told the Observer. “I firmly believe this.”

Article V of the U.S. Constitution requires that Congress convene a national convention for the purpose of amending the Constitution if two-thirds of the states call for one. It’s never been done and no one really knows how it would work, but conservative groups are increasingly championing the idea.

Economists say that forcing a balanced budget during an economic turndown could cripple the national economy. In a January New York Times column, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the “balanced-budget fetish” deeply irresponsible.

More than two dozen states have passed resolutions calling for a balanced budget amendment by way of Article V, though there is some debate about the validity of some of the requests.

San Antonio-based political scientist Jonathan Bernstein calls a balanced budget amendment via constitutional convention “the worst idea in American politics.”

Washington Monthly went a step further, calling it “the dumbest constitutional amendment of all time.”

And while it’s no surprise that GOP lawmakers support the measure—tweaking the Obama administration over deficits is de rigueur in Congress—some Texas Democrats have jumped on the bandwagon.

Balancing the federal budget would likely require large tax increases, spending cuts, or both. Supporters, including three Texas Democrats who voted for HJR 79, were loath to name specific tax increases or spending cuts they would support in order to balance the budget.

“I believe in a balanced budget,” said Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) after he voted for the resolution. When asked which programs he would cut or which taxes he would raise to accomplish that goal, Turner demurred.

“I’m not in D.C., I can’t tell you about the federal budget,” Turner said.

All states except Vermont require balanced state budgets, but unlike the federal government states don’t pay for wars or provide for Social Security.

This is not Texas’ first Article V gambit. Texas passed convention-of-states resolutions in 1973, to prevent school desegregation, and in 1977, to balance the federal budget. Both measures failed.

“I think a balanced budget is a good thing,” said Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont). But Deshotel admits that it will likely be a long time before Congress calls a constitutional convention.

“It was just a philosophical vote. We know nothing is going to happen with this,” he said.

John Savage is a writer based in Austin.

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