Republican legislators want to make Wisconsin the 29th state to call for a convention to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, raising concerns among Democrats that the state could help open the door to ultra-conservative proposals that would drastically reshape the nation’s guiding document.
Sen. Chris Kapenga of Delafield introduced a resolution earlier this month that would add Wisconsin to the list of states demanding a convention to adopt the amendment. Kapenga said in a memo seeking co-sponsors that the national debt could destroy the United States. The debt stood at $19.8 trillion as of early March, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
“Our Founding Fathers repeatedly warned against debt because they realized it was a key driver to the decline of every major civilization,” Kapenga wrote.
He said he doesn’t believe either political party can solve the deficit and he’s worried that countries such as China could decide to stop buying U.S. bonds, making it impossible to fund the federal government.
“Everyone seems to have their head in the sand right now,” Kapenga said. “It’s a strange thing to me that people have become used to these large (deficit) numbers.”
Article V of the U.S. Constitution lays out two paths for amending the document. The U.S. House and Senate, by a two-thirds vote of each chamber, can refer an amendment to the states. Two-thirds of state legislatures, or 34 states, also can request that Congress call a convention of the states. Both methods require at least 38 states to ratify an amendment before it can take effect.
The state convention process has never been used but talk of using one to ratify a balanced budget amendment has been swirling among conservatives for years. Twenty-eight states have called for a convention to adopt a balanced budget amendment. The November election left the GOP in control of 33 legislatures, leaving them just one state short of being able to force a convention.
Convention opponents have warned the gathering could turn into a runaway proceeding in which delegates propose all manner of amendments. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Kenosha Democrat, said American citizens’ rights could be “up for grabs” at a constitutional convention.
“These are unsettling times and there is probably not a worse time to have a constitutional convention in our nation,” Barca said in an email.
Balanced budget amendment supporters plan to convene this summer in Nashville, Tennessee, to propose rules for a future convention. Kapenga has introduced a second resolution that would require Wisconsin convention delegates to abide by convention rules the Assembly of State Legislatures (ASL) adopted last summer that limit amendment proposals to the subject for which the states called the proceeding. Kapenga serves as co-president of the ASL, a group of legislators working to develop rules for a constitutional convention. Kapenga also has authored a bill that calls for dismissing any Wisconsin delegates who vote for unauthorized amendments.
Barca said even if Wisconsin can control its delegates, there’s no guarantee other states will.
Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, warned that ASL’s internal rules won’t be able to control what happens at such a convention and Republican states could easily rewrite the Constitution to limit the rights of voters, minorities and women.
“The balanced budget talk is a fig leaf to let them change America into a right-wing alternative universe,” Ross said.
A host of GOP lawmakers have signed on to Kapenga’s convention call resolution as co-sponsors. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, that chamber’s most powerful Republican, has signed on to the convention call resolution but isn’t co-sponsoring the delegate resolution or bill. His spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a message Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald hasn’t signed on to any of the measures, but Kapenga said Fitzgerald has told him he supports the proposals.