Republican lawmakers from 19 states gathered at the Arizona Capitol Tuesday to plan for a constitutional convention that would propose a federal balanced budget amendment.
The four-day meeting is designed to set the stage if 34 state Legislatures approve a call to amend the Constitution through a convention.
Currently, 27 states have active requests to convene a convention, all controlled by Republicans.
A convention has never successfully been used to propose an amendment, and all 27 that have been adopted were proposed by Congress.
A balanced budget amendment is a core goal of conservative Republicans who have gained control of an increasing number of state Legislatures in recent years, now holding both chambers in 32 states. Backers include groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.
More than 70 delegates, all of whom were Republicans, attended today's meeting.
There was also a lack of diversity, as all the official delegates were white and roughly half a dozen were women.
"We welcome a lot of participation. We welcome diversity. Unfortunately, people are scared, unsure or misinformed about this process so it's up to us to help educate the people," said David Miller, a delegate from Iowa.
The effort also comes against the backdrop of deep turmoil in Washington over debt spending. Top congressional Democrats last week cut a deal with President Donald Trump to increase the federal debt limit, avoiding for now a fight that commonly causes divisions and threats of a government shutdown.
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The goal of amendment backers is to eliminate the federal deficit and drive down the national debt, which is approaching $20 trillion. The current federal budget includes spending of about $4 trillion and has a shortfall of nearly $700 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
"You've gotta try," New Hampshire state Sen. John Reagan said Tuesday. "How does this end, (these) nonstop credit card payments?"
Congress debated a balanced budget amendment in the early and mid-1990s, but it did not pass.
The lawmakers meeting this week are discussing a process that requires several steps. Thirty-four states must vote to adopt the amendment and convene a convention, but it still must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Now, 27 states have active requests to convene a convention, all controlled by Republicans.
The goal is to come up with a formal convention plan if 34 states petition Congress.
Arizona is hosting 71 delegates this week, all Republicans. Arizona state Rep. Kelly Townsend said efforts to invite Democratic states have not been successful. Proposed rules say delegates must be approved by both chambers of their state Legislature "so that they can legitimately vote and represent their state," Townsend said.
Opponents of the amendment argue that a convention could go dangerously off-track and move into wholesale rewrites of other areas of the Constitution, such as gun rights, an abortion ban and term limits. They also say a balanced budget amendment could threaten the economy.
"By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would risk tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses," according to a policy paper by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
That's because lawmakers would be forced to cut spending during recessions, removing a key way the federal government can boost economic activity.
Townsend said the three-quarters requirement to ratify the amendment limits the chances of a "runaway convention" where delegates could do a wholesale rewrite of the Constitution.
"Whatever we do when we close down and adjourn, our final product has to be viable. It's not binding yet, and the states have to ratify it - that's 38 of them," she said.
Even some conservatives worry about a constitutional convention.
U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican, routinely blocked legislation authorizing a convention during the four years he led the state Senate. He wrote a book in 2015, "The Con of the Con Con," laying out his concerns.
Biggs wrote that if people believe the Constitution is fallible, "how do you know that the remedy you rely on, Article V, is not flawed as well?"
The bottom line for many delegates is figuring out how to force Congress to cut the deficit.
"I think it's immoral and borderline criminal what we're doing to future generations of Americans," Indiana state Rep. Jim Lucas said.
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