Washington — With little fanfare, the United States has once again wandered close to the edge of a constitutional convention -- an assembly that has not actually been held since 1787.
Last Monday, Alaska became the 31st state calling for a constitutional convention to consider an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. If just three more states join the chorus, such a meeting must be convened.
It isn't necessarily imminent. Alaska is the first state in over two years to pass a resolution on the issue. Critics claim not all 31 measures will stand up to legal scrutiny. Moves to force a constitutional convention on other subjects have come even closer, only to fail in the end.
But six states passed similar convention resolutions through one chamber of their legislatures in 1981. If nothing else, say proponents, this grass-roots push could force Congress to seriously consider a constitutional cap on federal spending.
And it raises the question of why Capitol Hill, despite many attempts and much urging, has never passed legislation outlining what to do if the call for a constitutional convention succeeds.
''It's clearly an uncharted area,'' says John Feerick, member of an American Bar Association study group that produced a report on the issue.
Article V of the US Constitution outlines two ways for proposing amendments. The first, ''whenever two-thirds of both Houses (of Congress) shall deem it necessary,'' originated all amendments now part of the document. The second, ''on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states, (Congress) shall call a convention for proposing amendments,'' has never been used successfully.
The failure has not come from lack of trying. Since the national constitutional convention of 1787, Congress has been peppered with over 300 requests from state legislatures, calling for conventions on everything from polygamy to prohibition. Though every state has sent at least one application, there have never been 34 who wanted to talk about the same thing -- and constitutional scholars say a meeting can only be convened on a specific issue.
The method has been a successful stick for prodding a somnolent Congress to attention. Pressure from a mounting pile of state resolutions probably forced Capitol Hill to propose the 17th Amendment, providing for the election of Senators by popular vote.
And as recently as 15 years ago, 32 state legislatures passed resolutions requesting a constitutional convention dealing with legislative apportionment. But from that high water mark, the apportionment issue gradually slid into obscurity.
Now, those who want to write a balanced budget into the Constitution are mounting a convention drive, in concert with an attempt to push a corresponding amendment through Congress.
With its roots in the tax revolts of the late '70s, the balanced budget amendment gained quick support in the states. Twenty-two legislatures passed their convention resolutions on the issue in 1978; eight more acted in 1979. Then the move appeared to lose momentum.
Alaska may have put it back on the front burner.
The drive ''absolutely'' will reach 34 states, claims George Snyder, president of the National Taxpayer's Union. Washington, Kentucky, and Missouri are three states where the resolution stands a good chance of passing this year, he claims. Mr. Snyder, however, expresses doubt a constitutional convention will ever come to pass.
''The politics won't permit it,'' he says. ''Congress will hopefully get down to proposing'' a balanced budget amendment before it is forced to call a convention.
A proposed amendment -- SJ Resolution 58 - was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last spring. Associated with economist Milton Friedman, the resolution, say its supporters, would stop the tendency of government spending to take over a growing share of America's economy.
The amendment would require Congress, each year, to adopt a balanced budget statement. A three-fifths vote of both houses could authorize temporary budget deficits. Government income through taxes could grow no faster than national income.
Critics of a constitutional ''cage'' for federal spending say such an amendment is unworkable and unwise.
''Economics is so inexact a science, and the future is so unpredictable, that it is an act of arrogant folly to try to specify constitutional formulas applicable for the infinite future,'' said economist Paul Samuelson, commenting on the issue before a congressional committee in 1979.
SJ 58, say congressional sources, should come up for a floor vote sometime this spring.
SJ 58, say congressional sources, should come up for a floor vote soon. Both thrusts -- a congressionally proposed balanced budget amendment, and a call for a constitutional convention - will likely face stiff opposition in the House.
A House Judiciary source says the committee has no plans to consider a balanced budget amendment this session. And chairman Rep. Peter Rodino (D) of New Jersey has, in the past, spoken skeptically about a state-called constitutional assembly.
''It's unwieldy. It's more difficult than people might think,'' says an aide to Representative Rodino. ''It's nothing that would come about quickly if they reach the magic number .'' Rodino and other convention-call critics make these objections:
* It's unclear whether all states are calling for the same thing. If a congressional reviewing board disallows some petitions, the drive could fall short. There are no standard resolution formats.
* No one knows if a convention is legally limitable to one issue. The meeting could become a ''runaway,'' proposing for state ratification amendments on any and all issues it cares to address.
* In general, since there's never been a convention since the Constitution was formulated, there are no rules. How are delegates to be elected? Who pays for it? Venturing onto such uncharted ground might cause a constitutional crisis.
A blue-ribbon American Bar Association panel, in 1973, produced a study saying it would be ''desirable'' for Congress to enact legislation answering such questions.