Critics are assailing a plan to require a federal balanced budget through the unprecedented step of calling a U.S. constitutional convention, even as its Wisconsin Republican proponents call it the prerogative of U.S. states to rein in the federal debt.
Resolutions requesting an “Article V” convention, named for the U.S. Constitution article that authorizes it, were heard at the state Capitol Tuesday by a joint Senate-Assembly panel.
One of the resolutions would make Wisconsin the 30th state to request such a convention. Thirty-four states is the constitutional threshold to trigger one.
The only other constitutional convention was held in 1787, when the founding document was drafted.
Critics say the move is risky. They say it could unleash a “runaway convention” at which scores of unrelated amendments are proposed, including ones that jeopardize constitutional rights.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, prodded Republican sponsors of the resolutions on whether a balanced budget amendment is needed — and whether an Article V convention is the way to do it.
“This, to me, seems like a really elaborate way to balance a budget,” Zepnick said.
Critics of the resolutions included Democratic lawmakers and left-leaning advocacy groups as well as the John Birch Society, a far-right advocacy group.
Supporters say the constitutional convention would be limited in scope to a balanced budget amendment.
One of the resolutions asks the U.S. Congress to call the convention “for the limited purpose of requiring the federal government to operate under a balanced budget.” Another requires Wisconsin convention delegates to follow an Assembly of State Legislatures rulebook adopted last year that limits amendments to the issue for which the states called the convention.
But there is dispute over whether a constitutional convention actually could be limited to a single issue. ACLU-Wisconsin is among the groups saying there’s no way to maintain that limitation once the convention begins.
The Senate sponsor of the resolutions, Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, called them “one step further to putting our nation’s house in order.” The National Federation of Independent Businesses was among the groups that testified for the bill.
“Debt was the downfall of most civilizations,” Kapenga said. “We’ve never seen this type of debt before.”
The federal government is not required to balance its budget, unlike the state, which is constitutionally obligated to do so.
Many economists say federal deficit spending can be necessary to fund wars, combat economic recessions or respond to natural disasters. A balanced budget requirement could severely hamstring the federal government’s ability to respond to those situations, Zepnick and other critics say.
Any amendments proposed in a U.S. constitutional convention must be ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the states.
The U.S. Congress can propose individual constitutional amendments. But requesting a convention is the only way for state lawmakers to initiate the process. The U.S. Congress mulled a federal balanced budget amendment in 1992 and it fell just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the U.S. House.
Wyoming last month became the 29th state to request an Article V convention.
In Wisconsin, majority votes in the Assembly and Senate are all that’s needed for Wisconsin to approve the convention resolutions.
A related bill calls for the governor and lawmakers to appoint seven delegates to serve as Wisconsin’s delegation to a constitutional convention if one is called. Under the bill, if a delegate votes at the convention to consider or approve an unauthorized amendment — defined as being outside the scope of the application or the call of the convention — the delegate may be immediately dismissed by a majority of the state’s other delegates and replaced.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has signed on to the resolution requesting a constitutional convention.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has not signed on to the resolutions. His office did not immediately respond Tuesday to an inquiry about whether he supports them.