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Answering Listener Questions About A Constitutional Convention


The federal deficit is on track to hit $1 trillion in the year 2020. This, in good economic times. Some Americans are echoing President Ronald Reagan's call from 1982.


RONALD REAGAN: For too long, the legislative process has simply been overwhelmed by the powerful and relentless pressures for more spending. So I ask the Congress to pass, as soon as possible, a constitutional amendment requiring that it balance the federal budget.

INSKEEP: This very month, the House tried to pass that amendment but failed to get the 2/3 majority it needed. Many states have taken the step of calling for a constitutional convention. Here to answer your questions about how that would work is Cokie Roberts, who spoke with Noel King.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Good morning, Cokie.


KING: All right. Our first question gets to the mechanics of a constitutional convention, and it comes from Twitter, from Leon Ledlow (ph). He writes, how are delegates to a constitutional convention selected?

ROBERTS: Basically, we have no idea. I guess the state legislatures will figure that out if the time comes. Article V of the Constitution just says that it can be amended if 2/3 of the Congress votes to do so and 3/4 of the states ratify. Or, if the legislatures of 2/3 of the states call for a convention to amend the Constitution. Congress has always gone for the first option for the 27 amendments of the Constitution because the second one seems to lead into very uncharted waters.

KING: OK. Well, that gets, actually, to our second question.

ADAM CALLAN: My name is Adam Callan (ph), and I live in Bethlehem, Pa. Once a constitutional convention has been called, is it limited to only the issue that was initially raised, or can any alterations be put forward?

ROBERTS: That's the big question, and it's the reason so many people are fearful of a convention. The only one we've ever had was in 1787, and that one went completely off the tracks because they were just supposed to alter the Articles of Confederation to promote trade. Instead, we got a whole new Constitution.

KING: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: So the fear of a convention run amok has really stopped some state legislatures. But a couple of big conservative organizations are out there promoting a convention. So it could actually happen.

KING: Cokie, we also got a question about the more traditional amendment process through Congress.

GREG TUTTLE: My name is Greg Tuttle (ph), from Rockville, Md. When states with balanced budget constraints backed themselves into a corner, they have the federal government to bail them out. If a balanced budget amendment passes, what fiscal policies would be available to counteract emergencies?

ROBERTS: Well, that's a good question. The most recent version, the one the House failed to pass last week, waived a balanced budget requirement for military purposes and provided that Congress could override the requirement by a 3/5 vote in both chambers. But, look, Noel, it's that fear of constraints, particularly during a recession, that's one of the reasons the amendment has failed in one House or the other over the years.

KING: Our last question comes from Susan Tyler (ph), who wanted to know, has the U.S. ever had a balanced budget, and if so when? And if yes, did that have an effect on our ability to trade with other countries?

ROBERTS: Sure. We've had a balanced budget lots of times, most recently during the Clinton Administration. And the years '99, 2000 and 2001 all produced surpluses. But even when running a surplus, there's no trade effect. We get trade deficits. But it does have an effect on bond markets and on the ability of the government to spend money on programs rather than be crowded out by debt payments.

KING: But it can and has been done - recently, in fact.

ROBERTS: Very recently.

KING: Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

KING: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org, or by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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