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Constitution: Relic or effective owner's manual?

I believe there are plenty of Americans, still, who are not ready to abandon the grand experiment in self-governance set in motion by our Constitution. 

The following was written by Rita Dunaway and originally published on WND.com.

Americans have been hearing about the looming debt crisis for so long that some now dread it only in the sense that they dread collision of our planet with a giant asteroid. It may be a legitimate cause for concern, but it hasn’t happened yet, and we’re not sure there is anything we can do to prevent it.

Others, however, are proposing actual, thoughtful solutions to America’s financial woes.

Author and commentator George Will is one of them. In a column earlier this month, Will urged Congress to propose a constitutional amendment, pursuant to Article V of the Constitution, that would require a balanced federal budget.

Will rightly laments the immorality of financing today’s government programs on the backs of future generations of Americans. But the solution he proposes suffers from two flaws. It underestimates the depth of the problem and overestimates the willingness of Congress to resolve it.

First of all, members of Congress and the bureaucrats they control benefit more than anyone from the spending status quo. They are unlikely to propose a balanced budget amendment for the same reason that they are unlikely to ever choose to significantly cut federal spending – because spending for programs that people like helps them win the next election.

In other words, Congress isn’t keen on restraining its own power.

Now this political reality doesn’t make Will’s balanced budget amendment an impossibility; it merely requires the states to use the alternative means Article V provides for them to meet and propose the needed amendments.

Those who have suggested that Article V’s “convention for proposing amendments” poses some mortal danger to our Constitution need to be reminded that at any such gathering, the state delegations have precisely the same power Congress has every day it sits in session – the power merely to propose amendments. Adding amendments to the Constitution, whether proposed by Congress or by the states, always requires ratification by three-fourths of the states.

But now we come to the second, larger flaw in Will’s proposal. A balanced budget amendment is simply not enough.

Will himself concedes that Congress could evade the requirement through “creative bookkeeping” or “stealthy spending through unfunded mandates on state governments and the private sector.” But my strongest objection to a balanced budget amendment is not a matter of unintended consequences; it’s a matter of principle. A balanced budget amendment would do nothing to correct the fundamental dysfunction of our federal government: the unrestrained, illegitimate expansion of federal power.

Col. George Mason’s concern that Washington would only ever expand upon its enumerated powers was precisely the reason he insisted, at the Constitutional Convention, that Congress not be the sole keeper of the power to propose amendments. And yet, the states have thus far failed to implement the alternative mechanism, vested in them, to prune federal overgrowth through the amendment process.

State-proposed constitutional amendments could explicitly reject the “interpretations” of our Constitution that have allowed Washington to usurp the role of the states. They could address the debt crisis by eliminating Congress’ power to spend on programs that it has no business operating in the first place. 

George Will believes that “reverence for the Constitution is imperiled by tinkering with it,” and I agree that we must exercise prudence in seeking to amend it. But we must ask ourselves: Do we want a Constitution that is revered as a historical artifact, or do we want it to be revered because, after more than two centuries, it still effectively restrains the ambitions of those who sit in power in our nation’s Capital?

I believe there are plenty of Americans, still, who are not ready to abandon the grand experiment in self-governance set in motion by our Constitution. Our loyalty to that Constitution – not as a pristine parchment, but as a functioning operator’s manual – demands that we resolve systemic dysfunctions through textual amendments that clarify what has been distorted through legislative and executive exuberance and judicial activism. It demands that we recalibrate the balance of power.

So yes, we do need constitutional amendments to address our most fundamental civic crises. But despite what some may think, the biggest problem isn’t that the feds are spending money they don’t have; the biggest problem is that they are using power we never gave them.