Supporters claim fears of “runaway convention” are exaggerated

Big spenders in Congress who continue to inflate the national debt at the expense of future generations could be brought to heel if a Louisiana resolution in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment continues to catch on in other states.

With the national debt now approaching $15 trillion, recent polls show that a broad cross-section of Americans stand united on the need to curtail spending in Washington D.C. and alleviate the flow of red ink. A new Reuters poll, for example, shows 71 percent of Americans oppose increasing the national debt.

Even so, recent history shows that Congress is not likely to constrain itself and must instead be forced into accepting public opinion, North Dakota State Sen. Curtis Olafson a Republican from Edinburg, has warned.

“Some people say we need to change the people in Congress, but we have done that and we have also changed the party in control,” he said. “Yet our debt continues to grow and this tells us that the problem is more systemic and that the ground rules must be changed.”

Olafson was the chief sponsor of the resolution in his home state that calls for a National Debt Relief Amendment (NDRA). He also testified on behalf of the Louisiana resolution, which passed in June. The Louisiana vote was 73-0 in the House and 24-7 in the Senate.

Under Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress is required to set a time and place for delegates from all 50 states to convene once 34 states have petitioned for an “amendments convention” on the same subject. The NDRA was drafted by RestoringFreedom.Org, a Texas-based non-profit group, and endorsed by the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based free-market think tank. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) also adopted the resolution providing for the NDRA as model legislation in January.

The NDRA’s proposed amendment language reads as follows: “An increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate states.”

In just the past few weeks, state legislators in Montana, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin have committed to introducing NDRA resolutions. The other states where the NDRA is pending introduction or passage are: Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Utah.  “Serious discussions” are now underway in 12 other states, Olafson said, which means the NDRA is in play in 24 states.

“Anyone who thinks Congress is suddenly going to have an epiphany and reform itself will be sorely disappointed,” Olafson said. “But if we get just a few more states on board with the resolution we are off to the races.”

He added:

“What happened in Louisiana and in my home state definitely had an impact because it demonstrates to other state officials that this can be done and that there is support in other parts of the country.”

While Olafson is also open to the idea of a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA), he does not expect that it would ever pass, and even if it did, it would be far too easy in his view for Congress to circumvent its key provisions.

“There is a get out of jail free card with the Balanced Budget Amendment,” he noted. “With a two-thirds vote it can be waived. I prefer the National Debt Relief Amendment because it is much simpler and it does not dictate any set of policies. It also stands a much better chance of getting to the finish line and exerting pressure on Washington D.C.”

It would be more difficult for Congress to sidestep the NDRA if it went into effect because the financial markets would discount the value of bonds that would be marketed to finance an increase in debt that has not been approved by the states, Olafson added.

Some critics of NDRA have expressed concern that it could open the way to a runaway convention where radical amendments are proposed.

“Nothing is worth opening up our Constitution to uncontrolled action comparable to Democrats and Republicans holding their conventions in the same place at the same time,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, has written. “A Constitutional Convention  once convened, would make its own rules, in the same way that the original convention did, no matter what the authorizing resolutions said.  Do you see among today’s cast of characters leaders comparable to the Founding Fathers?  I don’t, but I do see many people who would like very much to pose as ‘Founding Fathers’ in imposing more ‘hope and change’ on our Constitution.”

Rob Natelson, a retired law professor, has addressed these objections in a series of reports for the Goldwater Institute.

He argues that the status quo in Washington D.C. is far more dangerous to American interests than the convention process.

“The Founders included the state application-and-convention process because they recognized that Congress might become irresponsible or corrupt and refuse to propose needed changes — particularly if those changes might restrain the power of Congress,” Natelson wrote. “In the state application-and-convention process, the states play much the same role in curbing abuses at the federal level as citizens do when curbing abuses through citizen initiatives at the state level. Increasingly, Americans are recognizing the current situation in our country is precisely the kind for which the convention method was designed.”

Opponents of the NDRA overlook some key historical facts, Olafson points out. For starters, Article 5 does not provide for a full blown Constitutional Convention but only authorizes a Convention for the purpose of proposing specific amendments. Moreover, when language was introduced that would allow for a full Convention it was rejected multiple times.

“The fear over an Article 5 amendments convention, while it’s pervasive and widespread it is not rational,” Olafson said. “If you do some basic research on the Article 5 process and the history of how and why it was formulated by the founding fathers you come to realize there is no good reason to fear the process.”

There is also the added hurdle of needing 38 states to ratify the NDRA or any other amendment.
“I ask our critics to produce for us their official list of 38 states that they fear would ratify a dangerous, extremist or radical amendment,” he said. “I have challenged many people who preach fear mongering to produce a list and so far no one has because it doesn’t exist.”

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter.