The Legislature’s battle over pursuing a federal balanced-budget amendment ended Tuesday as the final measure died like those before it last week, with lawmakers stuck between two outcomes they can’t control and don't like.
The argument came down each time to fear of radical changes possibly being made to other parts of the U.S. Constitution at a national convention, versus fear of a federal debt fast becoming too big to repay.
The House Taxation Committee voted 11-4 to reject a resolution asking Congress to call a constitutional convention for the purpose of considering an amendment that would “require a balanced federal budget, except in the event of war, economic calamity or national catastrophe.”
Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, said he doesn’t think people will have the discipline to stick to only the balanced-budget issue at a convention. He said there is a decades-old debate among legal scholars about whether a convention can be limited to a specific topic.
Russell said that dispute alone convinces him to avoid seeking a convention.
He recalled the example of most members of the Legislature voting to accept more than $800 million of federal stimulus aid during the Rounds administration, even though the spending drove the federal deficit deeper. Russell voted against the stimulus funding.
Russell praised Rep. Hal Wick, R-Sioux Falls, for seeking the convention but said it creates an unnecessary risk he isn’t willing to take.
“I don’t think this is the mechanism because I think it could be a runaway convention, and I have serious fears,” Russell said.
The Legislature in 1979 approved a resolution seeking a balanced budget amendment when the debt was still under $1 trillion. Today it stands at more than $16 trillion. Under current law, the United States would be in the same spot as Greece with a debt of $26 trillion by 2023, Wick said.
“We will continue to fall apart if we continue to spend dollars like we are,” Wick said.
Thirty-four states would be needed for the convention to proceed, and 38 states would be necessary for ratifying an amendment produced by the convention.
Rita Houglum of South Dakota Eagle Forum said “there is absolutely no guarantee” Congress would call the convention “for just one purpose.” “I think we all know there are a lot of groups out there that would like to get hold of the U.S. Constitution,” Houglum said.
Rep. Jim Peterson, D-Revillo, said he wished there was a balanced-budget amendment in the U.S. constitution.
“But I am really fearful of opening up the constitution to a convention. I am not assured yet they can limit themselves to just one topic,” Peterson said. “If this was a resolution calling for Congress to balance the budget, I would support it.”
Wick, one of the Legislature’s conservative leaders, received support from House Democratic leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton, who said, “it’s bad for our Congress to deficit spend the way we have.”
Hunhoff said that if such a restriction had been in place the nation might have avoided hundreds of billions of dollars in additional debt and saved thousands of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq by not engaging in “a war that was never declared a war.”