When the United States had its first and last constitutional convention in 1787, Arizona was still part of what was then northern Mexico.
Now it's the ninth state to call for a constitutional convention for a balanced-budget amendment, playing a role in what could be a fundamental reshaping of American policy.
Governor Doug Ducey signed the Compact for a Balanced Budget Amendment last week, declaring that it would "bring fiscal sanity back to Washington."
"Our Founding Fathers knew the dangers of a federal government run amok," Ducey said in his statement.
"That’s why they gave the American people the ability to step in, when necessary. With nearly $20 trillion in debt, a burden which will be paid for by our kids and grandkids, it’s time states took action to say, 'enough is enough.'"
Experts say the potential for change is enormous. For some observers, it’s a prospect that raises goosebumps.
Article V, if you don’t have a copy of the Constitution handy, spells out how to amend the U.S. Constitution.
It's not supposed to be easy. Two-thirds of both houses of Congress can agree to propose amendments. Or, if two-thirds of state legislatures – 34 states — apply for a convention, Congress can call one “for proposing amendments.”
Whichever way they're created, constitutional amendments require approval by either three-quarters of state legislatures or three-quarters of state conventions.
With the compact, Arizona has joined a mostly conservative movement to hold a national convention that aims to limit the federal government’s ability to operate on a deficit. If successful, one result could be a fundamental shift of power to the states and permanent loss of many federal programs.
Yet the process could also spin into an “uncontrollable thing,” said Paul Bender, a law professor and dean emeritus at Arizona State University.
Although HB 2226, the bill that Ducey signed into law, states that a balanced budget will be the only permissible subject, it’s not clear that the convention formed by Congress would have to be limited in scope, according to Bender.
Arizona’s compact states that the governor, speaker of the house, and president of the senate, “or their designee,” will represent the state at this convention. But exactly who Congress allows as delegates might also be up in the air.
The idea of a convention “raises a lot of great questions, interesting questions,” Bender said. He plans on introducing the topic into one of his classes.
Another question is how the number of states calling for a convention should be counted. If it's by the total number of states calling for a convention, whether they've rescinded their applications or not, then a convention could be called now, according to some arguments. But if it's by specific topic, another 25 states are needed to force the convention.
It's not just Republicans interested in a convention, either — Young Turks' Cenk Uygur started Wolf Pac in 2011, hoping for a constitutional convention that would produce an amendment for election reforms.
The 18th-century convention in Philadelphia was conducted in secret, he said. This one would be televised.
Even if some proposals got through the messy convention process, the three-quarter majority of states needed to actually pass an amendment is a high bar.
“That’s a natural break on what would happen,” he said.
Another possibility: Groups opposed to the compact could put the new law before voters as a referendum by collecting more than 75,000 voter signatures.
Bender said whether a referendum election could be held on the compact is another unanswered question.
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