by Max Brantley
Ernie Dumas uses his column this week to explain the worthlessness of the constitutional amendment unveiled last week by Sen. Jason Rapert and a cadre of other Republican legislators (and Gene Jeffress). It's another ALEC scheme, courtesy of the billionaire Koch brothers.
Tough times require harebrained solutions, one of which is national suicide. That is the unspoken motto of what James Marshall Crotty of the conservative magazine Forbes calls the blockhead wing of the Republican Party.
It was onstage at the state Capitol last week when 16 state lawmakers announced an effort in Arkansas to change the national constitution written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and company and turn over federal budgeting, war and peace and the handling of all national crises to the 50 state legislatures.
You have a low opinion of the U.S. Congress, but does that sound to you like a wise thing to do? The idea had especially horrified Hamilton.
Fifteen Republicans, led by Sen. Jason Rapert of Bigelow, pledged support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to do just that—along with one Democrat,
Rep. Sen. Gene Jeffress of Louann. Jeffress is running for Congress from the Fourth District, and by endorsing the idea of making Congress subservient to state legislatures declared himself intellectually and temperamentally unqualified for the job.
They have filed a resolution in the state Senate and House of Representatives petitioning Congress to call a constitutional convention, the first since 1787. They hope the convention would refer a constitutional amendment to the states to prohibit any future increase in the federal debt limit until most state legislatures had voted to do it and agreed on exactly the same amount. If the convention chose, it could skip that amendment and engage in other mischief like, say, repealing the Bill of Rights.
All of this, maybe including this commentary, is pointless because 34 state legislatures would have to petition Congress (Louisiana and North Dakota have done so), Congress would actually need to call the convention, the convention would need to adopt such an amendment, and 38 state legislatures would have to ratify it. None of it will happen. Conservative groups, among them the John Birch Society, think it’s a nutty idea, and even Michele Bachmann, who loves squirrelly ideas, thinks this one is scary.
The National Debt Relief Amendment is the brainchild of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive right-wing group funded by Exxon Mobil, the billionaire Koch, Scaife and Olin families and other big petroleum, coal and chemical companies. It churns out and feeds to state legislatures and Congress legislation to roll back health, environmental and safety rules and taxes on corporations and the rich.
The same people wanted Congress last year to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which would have caused the United States for the first time in history to renege on its credit and curtail Social Security, veterans and medical payments. Many Republicans, like Arkansas’s congressional bloc, were sympathetic but quailed at the end and voted to save the country instead.
The National Debt Relief Amendment would boot the United States off the cliff where Greece is hanging by its fingernails.
Jeffress, explaining why he joined the Republicans in wanting to shift national fiscal control to state legislatures, said Congress had always failed to balance the budget so it was time to take desperate measures.
He has a short memory. A little over a decade ago, the United States balanced the budget and produced surpluses four years in a row — two if you factor out the Social Security trust rescue of the treasury. And the deficit would nearly disappear again if tax rates were restored to 2001 levels and the economy returned to something like the full employment of that time. Remember that the effective income tax rate on high incomes in America is the lowest since the late 1920s. The top marginal rate was a little lower in the late 1980s, but all investment profits then were taxed fully like working people’s wages.
So how would the amendment work? When the treasury butted up against the debt ceiling (once a year? a dozen times a year?), state legislatures everywhere would have to go into session and a majority of both houses—often split just as badly as Congress—would have to raise the ceiling to some mutually agreed upon amount in at least 26 of the states. If not, the country would go into default.
Last year’s debt crisis, which nearly plunged the country into recession again, would be re-enacted over and over and over, and this time in state capitals and Washington.
But wouldn’t it force Congress to balance the budget?
The dynamics are just the opposite. Congress would no longer have the ultimate and lone responsibility. It would share the onus with 99 other legislative bodies (Nebraska has a single house). Congress could spend and tax but could not decide whether international or domestic emergencies required borrowing. The 50 state legislatures would decide that but have no budgetary control. When no one is ultimately accountable, you have the worst of all worlds.
But, Rapert and Jeffress will say, unlike Congress we have shown we can balance budgets. That’s because it’s easy. The legislature this month can appropriate $100 trillion for next year and the state cannot spend a dime more than the $4.7 billion or so that the state will take in. The law prevents it, just as it does in all but one other state.
That is because states do not address international and domestic crises, even a state’s own crises like catastrophic hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, drought, crop failure and depression. The federal government does that for them, even if it has to borrow the money, run a deficit and raise the debt limit. The states elect to address the problems but always with mostly federal money, as with health protection for the aged, disabled and children in institutions. In that case, the feds put up three dollars to each one by Arkansas.
The Arkansas legislature has not had to deal with its own budget crisis the past three years and does not have to this month because federal stimulus money—all of it borrowed—covered the state’s own shortfall, put thousands to work or kept them employed and kept the state’s coffers relatively full.
With Rapert’s folly, there would be no more of that. Thankfully, we will not have to learn the lesson with them.