When Congress failed to pass a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget -- something an overwhelming majority of Americans say they want -- it showed the power of Washington to derail ideas it doesn't like.
That's why 50 state governors are calling for a "Conference of the States": To hold Washington accountable to the people. But they are meeting stiff opposition from groups on both sides of the political spectrum. These groups have succeeded in convincing 14 state legislatures to reject or defer plans to attend the first such conference, forcing planners to postpone it until next year.
Those on the left fear the Conference of the States because it might influence Congress to restrict federal power. They are correct; it could, and probably should.
Others, mostly on the right, are concerned that the Conference of the States could become "a constitutional convention in disguise." These people -- most of whom favor balanced budgets and fiscal restraint -- fear that big-government liberals could take political control of such a gathering, call a constitutional convention, and alter America's founding document along lines that would further entrench Washington's power. It's important to set the record straight on what a Conference of the States is all about.
It's true: As Attorney General under President Reagan I learned firsthand that the federal bureaucracy is hostile to ideas like government accountability, civic participation, and federalism -- conservative values most Americans hold dear. Washington isn't going to reform itself. But that is precisely why a Conference of the States is a good idea. The only way America is going to re-assert control over a federal government that has overstepped its proper authority is if the states begin to assert their rights.
The balanced budget amendment is a case in point. Creating dependency by spending more money than it has -- and then leaving taxpayers with the bill plus interest - - is one way Washington has been able to extend its tentacles of power. Voters are on to this game, and want the budget balanced. But Congress is under tremendous pressure -- from special interests that feed at the Washington trough -- to reject anything that would restrict the federal government's expansion.
Which side usually wins out? Congress has consistently opposed balanced budget amendments in 1980, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1994, and on March 2 in the Senate.
This is why reform must be driven by the states. Sponsored by strictly bipartisan bodies such as the Council of State Governments, the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Conference of the States will be convened if 26 state legislatures vote to send delegations. It will bring together the nation's 30 Republican and 20 Democratic governors, and all the nation's state legislatures. The delegations then will try to figure out the best ways to go about re- establishing a proper balance between state and federal power.
The conference then will send its recommendations in the form of a "States Petition" back to the states. If a majority of legislatures approve the petition, it will then be sent to Congress, as non-binding advice on what federal lawmakers should do. The political consequences of ignoring such a petition would assure that it receives a fair hearing in the nation's capitol.
Renowned conservative jurists such as Judge Robert Bork assure us that it is impossible for the conference to become a constitutional convention. Article V of the U.S. Constitution says Congress must call any such convention, after it receives "the Application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states." In the Conference of the States, Congress will play no role at all.
Indeed, the principal architects of the Conference, Republican Govs. Michael Leavitt of Utah and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and Democratic Govs. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Howard Dean of Vermont, came up with the idea as a way to bring the states together without having to call a constitutional convention. By opposing this idea, conservatives may actually be helping ultra-liberal groups that don't want the conference because they want to keep Washington in control of public policy.
America's founders believed the fastest road to tyranny for the new United States would be if the prerogatives of state and local governments were usurped by a distant and overpowering national government. America has teetered on that precarious slope for decades. States now realize this, and are trying to restore balance.
A Conference of the States could be an important step in that process. It deserves support from everyone.
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Note: Former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, III is Ronald Reagan fellow in public policy at The Heritage Foundation