The following was first published on The Stream by Convention of States Senior Vice President of Legislative Affairs Rita Peters.
If you’re happy with the status quo in Washington, D.C., you can stop reading now. If, however, you wonder how much bigger the federal government can get before it implodes, read on.
Election after election, no matter which party is in power, our country seems to spin further out of control. Our national debt — over $31 trillion as I write — is so enormous that we can’t even fathom it. And yet the spending spree continues, unabated.
Part of the problem is Congress spending money on programs it does not even have authority to pursue. In fact, when Congress knows for sure that it does not have power to enact a policy, it skirts its limitations by pledging money to the states if they use their power to enact the policy.
Using Tax Dollars to Sidestep Policymaking Limits
The new federal gun safety law is a good example.
In 1997, the Supreme Court held in Printz v. United States that Congress can’t force state officials to perform background checks on gun buyers. Why? Because the states are not the minions of Congress. They are sovereign over matters not delegated to Congress in the Constitution.
Undeterred, Congress skirts this limit by simply holding loads of tax dollars over the heads of states. “These funds can be yours,” it promises, “if you do what we want.” In this vein, the new federal law provides “incentives” for states to pass “red flag laws.”
Maybe you support red flag laws, and maybe you don’t. But I hope we can agree that Congress should not be allowed to use our hard-earned tax dollars to effectively bribe the states to do what it cannot do. Even if Uncle Sam were flush with cash, this behavior defies our federal structure.
This example is one of many. It demonstrates the need to close loopholes Congress has created to expand its power.
A Path to Reform
Constitutional amendments are the right way to fix the problem.
Under Article V of the Constitution, amendments can be proposed by Congress, or by the states in a meeting called a “convention.” First, two-thirds of the state legislatures (34) pass resolutions for a convention on a given topic. Then Congress is required to set the date and location for the states to convene.
The state legislatures choose delegates to represent them. Those delegates meet, discuss ideas for addressing the stated topic, and then vote on those proposals. Each state gets one vote. Proposed amendments supported by the majority of states are then sent out by Congress for ratification. It takes 38 states to ratify any proposal.
Nineteen states have already applied for a convention to propose amendments that “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.” Polling shows that roughly two-thirds of the American people — across party lines — support this effort.
I support it because it is the most logical and effective way I know of to truly reform our broken federal structure.
Men Are No Angels
If we want Congress to stop skirting the limits on its power, then we have to use the Constitution to make it stop. Expecting Congress to want to limit its own power or stop spending other people’s money is foolish. But think about the impact of an amendment prohibiting Congress from spending tax dollars to promote policies it has no power to enact directly!
James Madison rightly observed that men are no angels. That is why our Constitution sets limits upon those in power. But those limits have eroded over time. Congress finding creative ways to control state policy is just one example of this.
If you read Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention, you find that the Article V process exists for exactly this situation. It is a process for the states to “check” national power.
In George Washington’s words:
If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
Congress’ usurpation of powers has led to a $31 trillion debt. Enough is enough. Let’s act, through the states, to force the changes that will save a nation. Visit www.conventionofstates.com to learn more.
Rita Peters is a constitutional attorney, the author of Restoring America’s Soul: Advancing Timeless Conservative Principles in a Wayward Culture and co-host of the weekly radio program, “Crossroads: Where Faith and Culture Meet.”