An Open Letter to the Alabama Legislature: Maintain Support for a Balanced Budget Amendment!

Dear Legislator:

On behalf of National Taxpayers Union’s (NTU’s) 362,000 members nationwide and our 4,000 members in Alabama, I urge you NOT to rescind your state’s recent federal Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) application. Thanks to Senate Joint Resolution 100 in 2011, Alabama is currently one of 19 states exercising its constitutional prerogative to put our country on the path to fiscal sanity. Withdrawing your BBA application would only diminish the pressure on Congress to act and amount to a unilateral surrender of states’ rights to rein in Washington’s reckless behavior.

In 1988, Alabama lawmakers decided to repeal the state’s call for a limited convention that would be assembled for the exclusive purpose of drafting and proposing for ratification a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At that time, NTU warned that such a move would only embolden Members of Congress to continue their course of deficit spending. Unfortunately, this proved to be the case. Between 1988 and 2011, the national debt increased roughly five-fold in dollar terms, and nearly doubled as a share of Gross Domestic Product. Despite at least half a dozen major, concerted efforts to pass the BBA – which typically enjoys margins of public support above 60 percent – through Congress, the measure continually stalled.

In 2011, you and your colleagues wisely decided that Alabama needed to reassert its leadership on behalf of fiscal discipline through Senate Joint Resolution 100. This decision should – and must – remain in place.

A Balanced Budget Amendment would enshrine in our Constitution a principle that our Founders simply assumed and abided by: the federal government should not spend more than it takes in, absent a specific, genuine emergency. Unfortunately, decades of financial mismanagement have proven that Congress as an institution is no longer capable of restraining itself, and that durable constitutional safeguards must have a role in limiting government. Washington has run deficits during 45 of the last 50 years.

Given this abysmal history, it becomes clear any solution to our spending crisis must come from outside Washington, D.C. Thankfully, the Constitution allows state lawmakers to exercise certain powers to prevent a catastrophe from federal excesses. As we wrote in “Why You Must Lead the Congress” over two decades ago:

The Founding Fathers had no way of predicting the current irresponsible spending policies of the federal government. Yet although they could not foretell the future, they were men of great wisdom. They did foresee the possibility that Congress might fail the people. It is for that reason that Article V of the U.S. Constitution enables the states to amend the Constitution.

Recently you have received a great deal of misinformation about the Balanced Budget Amendment and the limited convention process from organizations that mistrust both your wisdom and that of the Founding Fathers. Yet, we urge you to consider a warning from our Chairman, David Stanley. Over 18 years ago, Mr. Stanley, who served as a leader in the Iowa State Senate, authored a document entitled “How to Restore Fiscal Sanity: State Legislatures Hold the Key,” in which he wrote:

You would be suspicious of anyone who claims to support law enforcement but wants to abolish the police. You should be equally skeptical of anyone who claims to be for a Balanced Budget Amendment but against a limited convention to propose it. …

The best way to ensure the survival of our Constitution and its guarantees of liberties is for the States to use the Constitution as the Founders intended – to pass enough Article V resolutions to force Congress to act. …Unless we have the courage to use the tools the Founders in their wisdom gave us, our nation will become a laughingstock and bury our children under a mountain of debt.

Furthermore, the scholarship on behalf of Article V’s relevance and utility has grown tremendously. Professor Robert Natelson, for example, has conducted painstaking research to show that the Founders certainly did not construct Article V as an afterthought or an accident. From its conception, the provision was intended to be vigorously applied toward remedies for federal overreach. Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute has, through an ongoing series of works, cogently demonstrated that Article V is a fundamental element in our constitutional system of checks and balances, one whose exercise is both necessary and safe. They join modern-era conservatives in proclaiming the vital role of Article V such as Justice Antonin Scalia, who in 1979 said:

I have no fear that … extreme proposals would come out of a constitutional convention. … The founders inserted this alternative method of obtaining constitutional amendments because they knew the Congress would be unwilling to give attention to many issues the people are concerned with, particularly those involving restrictions on the federal government’s own power."

Those words echo the opinion of Ronald Reagan, who stated forthrightly:

... [V]oices have been raised warning of danger that a constitutional convention would open the door to all manner of proposed amendments. In my view those who warn of this show little faith in our democratic procedures. The Constitution provides for both methods and the convention is a safety valve giving the people a chance to act if Congress refuses to.

Yet, the naysayers against this process have failed to muster any credible evidence for their case, preferring instead to conjure up the “nonexistent constitutional ghosts” that the late Senator Sam Ervin, an Article V advocate, warned about more than 20 years ago. We were told that the cure for federal profligacy lies in “electing the right leaders,” all while numerous Presidents and Congresses abused the nation’s good credit. We were told that statutory measures would bring outlays under control, even as laws such as the Gramm-Rudman Hollings Act were trampled underfoot. We were told that elected officials need only “follow the Constitution,” and there would be no justification to amend the nation’s foundational document. Today, the entire republic that our Constitution undergirds and guarantees is threatened with extinction due to unsustainable federal policies. We were told that limits on taxes and spending were too trivial for the Constitution, a notion that seems quaint today as our gross federal debt exceeds the ominous level of 100 percent of the nation’s economic output. Entitlement programs, whose dire condition has been known for at least 20 years now, threaten to heap unfathomable burdens on taxpayers.

Given all of these truly devastating developments, our members hope you will maintain Alabama’s call for a limited convention of the states to propose a Balanced Budget Amendment. For the sake of current and future generations of taxpayers, please do not repeat the mistake of 1988 by allowing this historic opportunity for reestablishing fiscal responsibility to slip from your grasp.

Lee Schalk
State Government Affairs Manager