Research & Commentary: West Virginia Balanced Budget Amendment

Published February 5, 2016

The U.S. national debt has reached a staggering $18.5 trillion, and several national entitlement programs are headed toward bankruptcy – some as soon as 2016. State and local governments face their own impending debt crises, threatening the economy, people’s savings, and the nation’s future.

The system of checks and balances established by the U.S. Constitution to restrain the federal government has been undone over time by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, both of which are unwilling or unable to stop the growth of the national government’s power to tax, regulate, and borrow beyond its means. Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides states with a mechanism to call a convention to amend the Constitution when affirmed by two-thirds of the states. Any amendments proposed at the convention can be ratified by receiving approval from the legislatures of three-fourths of the states or by state ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states.

West Virginia is one of six states to file an application calling for a single-subject convention solely for the purpose for enacting a balanced budget amendment. This resolution is sponsored by the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force (BBATF). BBATF has already been successful in getting 27 states to enact Article V resolutions.

West Virginia’s legislation would require the total of all estimated federal revenues in any fiscal year to be greater than or equal to the total of all federal appropriations made by Congress, in addition to any related and appropriate fiscal restraints. The only exemption for the balanced budget amendment would be if the United States faces a national emergency, such as a war.

The most popular constitutional reform that is likely to be considered by an Article V convention in the near future is the creation of a balanced budget amendment. West Virginia is one of 49 states that requires a balanced budget at the state level, and proponents of a federal balanced budget amendment believe the national government should abide by the same requirement. A poll by Fox News conducted in 2013 found 85 percent of Americans support a balanced budget requirement to the Constitution of the United States. 

Some opponents of the creation of an Article V convention, such as the John Birch Society and the Eagle Forum, argue a “runaway” convention is possible and could result in even worse policies than what the nation now faces. Many experts, including constitutional law scholar Rob Natleson, have debunked this myth. They argue the applications for an Article V convention currently being considered have strong checks in place to guarantee the issues discussed at a potential Article V convention would be limited to predetermined topics. The Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force proposal in West Virginia is strictly limited to the subject of a balanced budget amendment. Imposing a fixed constitutional debt limit would increase transparency and would make it far more likely Congress would generate a balanced budget than the current status quo.

The states have an obligation to address the threat caused by the national government’s irresponsible spending practices. A balanced budget amendment would be a big step in the right direction, and the single-subject approach is a viable one that has been successful when utilized in other state legislatures.

The following documents provide additional information on balanced budget amendment proposals and the Article V process.

The Article V Movement: A Comprehensive Assessment to Date and Suggested Approach for State Legislators and Advocacy Groups Moving Forward
This Heartland Policy Brief is a comprehensive overview of the most consequential social movement occurring in the United States today: the Article V movement. As attorney David Guldenschuh notes, “The desire for power and the influence of special-interest money has so utterly corrupted Washington, DC that citizens no longer feel their leaders and representatives are looking out for the nation’s best interests.” Guldenschuh explains the nation’s Founding Fathers recognized the national government might someday overreach its constitutional authority, which is why they included Article V in the U.S. Constitution. Article V provides a mechanism for states to propose constitutional amendments that can rein in the national government. Guldenschuh describes four Article V advocacy groups—the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, Convention of States Project, Wolf-PAC, and Compact for America—and he reports on educational efforts undertaken by those organizations and others.

Amending the Constitution by Convention: A More Complete View of the Founders’ Plan
Independence Institute Senior Fellow Rob Natelson describes the process of amending the Constitution of the United States through an Article V convention. The study details how an Article V convention is called, the rules of a convention, and the role of Congress. It is the first of three in a series of Policy Studies published by the Independence Institute on the issue of amending the Constitution through an Article V convention.

Amending the Constitution by Convention: Lessons for Today from the Constitution’s First Century
This is the second of three Policy Studies authored by Independence Institute Senior Fellow Robert Natelson on the issue of amending the Constitution of the United States through an Article V convention. Topics mentioned include efforts to call conventions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of the state application and convention process, and the nullification crisis. 

Amending the Constitution by Convention: Practical Guidance for Citizens and Policymakers
This is the third study in a series of three Policy Studies by Independence Institute Senior Fellow Robert Natelson on the topic of amending the Constitution of the United States through an Article V convention. In this study, the author provides guidance to citizens and legislators on how to properly implement the process of calling an Article V convention. The text is meant be general in nature and not to be substituted for legal advice.

State Initiation of Constitutional Amendments: A Guide for Lawyers and Legislative Drafters
Independence Institute Senior Fellow Robert Natelson provides a guide to assist legislators and legislative counsel with the legal issues most likely to arise in the process of calling a convention of the states under Article V. Much attention has focused on the possibility of using Article V to rein in the growth of federal power, and many proposals are being advanced by a variety of organizations. This compendium serves as a valuable tool to assist with the legal analysis of the various Article V proposals.

Heartland Daily Podcast – Rob Natelson: Article V Constitutional Convention
In this edition of the Heartland Daily Podcast, H. Sterling Burnett, managing editor of Environment & Climate News,speaks with Robert Natelson, a senior fellow at the Independence Institute and former constitutional law professor at three different universities. Natelson and Burnett discuss the history and the practicality of an Article V constitutional convention. Natelson is one of the foremost scholars of the constitutional amendment process in general and Article V conventions of the states in particular. Natelson provides a historical analysis of what an Article V convention is, why it was included in the Constitution, how it functions, and previous and current attempts to implement the process.

The Constitutional Amendment Process and a Reform Proposal
This Cato Institute Policy Analysis argues the constitutional amendment procedure of Article V is defective. Because no amendment can be enacted without congressional approval, limitations on the federal government that Congress opposes are virtually impossible to pass. This has prevented the enactment of several amendments that would have constrained the government: a balanced budget limitation, a line-item veto, and congressional term limits. The author argues Article V should be reformed to allow two-thirds of the state legislatures to propose a constitutional amendment that would then be ratified or rejected by the states, acting through state conventions or state ballot measures. The author says such a return of power to the states would limit the nation’s overly centralized federal government by helping to restore the federalist character of the U.S. Constitution.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit the Center for Constitutional Reform at Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at

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