Bartholomew L. McLeay

Bart McLeay

The author is an Omaha lawyer and former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

In 1951, American psychologist Carl Rogers introduced a presentation style based on finding common ground and using empathy in conflict resolution.

As a business lawyer representing corporations, I am regularly guided by “Rogerian” technique, especially when preparing to address jurors who often are hard-working, middle-class people sometimes skeptical of decisions made in the executive suite. An honest Rogerian approach can help ease tensions and facilitate understanding.

Those promoting a convention of states seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution should consider the same path.

They also should consider limiting the convention to one issue: a balanced budget amendment.

As a refresher, Article V of the Constitution provides two methods for proposing amendments: a two-thirds vote in Congress and — never used before — a convention based on applications from two-thirds of state legislatures.

Congress has failed for decades to pass a balanced budget amendment.

State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete has introduced a bill calling for Nebraska to participate in a convention of states, and she has the skill to win its passage. Currently it isn’t limited to a balanced budget amendment.

Only seven more states need to act for a convention to take place. Some of those states are politically sky blue. While not all resolutions of authorizing states are the same, a balanced budget amendment is the primary common denominator.

Many conservative commentators support a balanced budget amendment and have called for a convention. They are channeling, fairly, the anger of Americans upset over shameful government fiscal irresponsibility.

But those opinion leaders need to stay poised. Just because a coach shares the sentiment of sports fans booing a referee’s call doesn’t mean the coach may lose composure and focus, undermining team goals.

Convention skeptics worry precisely about anger and decorum. They talk about a “runaway convention” led by a mob carrying pitchforks and planning to overthrow the entire government or, alternatively, envision a comical event akin to the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes convention in “The Flintstones.”

Neither should occur.

A runaway convention can be derailed at the station. State legislatures can statutorily limit their delegates to addressing only a balanced budget amendment.

Convention enthusiasts also would be wise not to push beyond a balanced budget amendment if they ever want to repeat the convention process. Columnist George Will observes that state legislatures could simply enter into a compact for a “one-item” balanced budget amendment convention and avoid the problem entirely. Pitchforks could be left at home.

A balanced budget amendment would not be a wasted effort.

There is a surprising group of people who have supported such an amendment at times in the past, including Democratic Sens. Harry Reid and Diane Feinstein and former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

A balanced budget amendment is merely about structure, not substance. Structure begets creativity. Greatness is displayed when activities are conducted within a frame of reference — in this case a budget that must be balanced — not when boundaries are limitless and choices infinite.

Returning to a sports analogy, sports are played in a confined space: football field, basketball court, baseball diamond and — analogous to politics — a UFC cage. Lebron James and Peyton Manning are enormously creative performing within their allotted boundaries. Likewise, Mona Lisa was painted within a frame. “To Kill a Mockingbird” fits inside a cover.

In the award-winning movie “Apollo 13,” NASA officials dumped onto a table in Houston the only equipment and accessories aboard the crippled spacecraft — plastic bags, cardboard, duct tape — and directed engineers to construct a life-saving solution for the crew, which they did.

That is what Americans want from their president and representatives in Congress.

Our government has limited resources, and Americans want to unleash the genius of the two branches, allowing them to show their skill within a defined playing field while advancing our interests. A balanced budget amendment would allow Americans to see what their leaders really can do.

Those seeking a strong central government will not be limited by a balanced budget amendment. If they can convince the American people that higher taxes on the rich are needed to make greater provision for the poor, a balanced budget amendment won’t stop them. In fact, a balanced budget amendment can help prove the very mandate they claim.

If a convention occurs and a balanced budget amendment is adopted, America wins.


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