State Watch

Conservatives prepare new push for constitutional convention

SAN DIEGO — Conservative lawmakers will mount a new push to call a constitutional convention aimed at creating a balanced budget amendment and establishing term limits for members of Congress in an effort to rein in what they see as a runaway federal government.

State legislators meeting at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s policy conference here last week hope to use Article V of the Constitution, which allows state legislatures to call a convention to propose new amendments.

“It’s really the last line of defense that we have. Right now, the federal government’s run away. They’re not going to pull their own power back. They’re not going to restrict themselves. And so this Article V convention is really, in my opinion, is the last option that we have,” said Iowa state Rep. John Wills (R), the state’s House Speaker pro tempore who backs the convention.

At least two-thirds of states must pass a call to force a convention; so far, 15 states have passed the model legislation proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that backs free markets and states’ rights.

Bills have passed at least one legislative chamber in another nine states, and bills have been introduced in 17 more states. The 15 states that have passed measures so far all have Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican governors; another nine states totally controlled by the GOP have yet to finalize passage, according to Convention of States Action, a project of the conservative group Citizens for Self-Governance.

Once a sufficient number of states have approved a call to a convention, Congress gets to set the initial rules. Article V says any proposed amendments would have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states to take effect.

“It’s a very high bar, very difficult to do,” said Stuart Adams (R), the president of the Utah state Senate and ALEC’s chairman.

But like many provisions in the Constitution, Article V leaves much open to interpretation: Nothing in its 143 words describes the process by which a convention would be run or the delegates who would meet and vote on potential amendments. The founding document’s requirement that any new amendments be ratified by three-quarters of states was a requirement the last constitutional convention ignored.

“Congress can purport to make whatever rules it wants for the convention. The convention can then throw them in the trash, which is certainly what the convention in Philadelphia did in 1787,” said David Super, a constitutional law expert at Georgetown Law. “There’s no guarantee that they will follow the ratification procedures. The only precedent we do have, they didn’t follow the ratification procedures.”

It is not even clear that state calls for a constitutional convention must be limited to narrow or specific topics. While the ALEC draft legislation mentions a balanced budget amendment and term limits, others have issued calls for a convention meant to tackle limits on Congress’s ability to levy taxes, or gun control, or rolling back the right to an abortion.

Along with the 15 Republican-led states that have approved ALEC’s model legislation, another five Democratic-led states — Vermont, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have approved calls for a convention focused on campaign finance reform. The group behind that proposal, called Wolf-PAC, was founded a decade ago by the progressive commentator Cenk Uygur.

“What we’re seeing is they’re kind of putting all these applications into one basket,” said Rebecca Timmons, a communications coordinator at Common Cause, which opposes the Article V convention. “There are no guardrails.”

Over the course of the nation’s history, every state except Hawaii has passed legislation calling for a constitutional convention, albeit on different grounds. States had submitted more than 700 calls for conventions through 2010, according to a database maintained by Friends of the Article V Convention, a supportive group. 

A 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service laid out the few occasions in modern history in which states have come close to forcing a convention. In the late 1960s, a push to reform legislative apportionment gained 33 petitions, just one short of the 34 necessary to force a convention. The first push for a balanced budget amendment earned support from 32 states in the 1980s, two short of the necessary mark.

Supporters of the Article V convention say they are not concerned about a runaway circus, in which topics far afield from the planned agenda dominate the discussion. If a convention passed an amendment outlawing abortion, or the Second Amendment, or anything similarly divisive, legislatures in many states would not give final approval, Wills said.

“I don’t know that anything is set in stone. I’d like to see a well-rounded convention. I’d like to see us tackle the problems in general, with one fell swoop,” Wills said in an interview. “Let’s just tackle the problems that we have now and be done with it. Versus, you know, trying to deal with it to the future.”

But there is no guaranteed time frame under which states would have to act on proposed amendments. Anything that might emerge from a convention could potentially lie dormant until one party sweeps to power.

“It’s going to be hanging over the country for the rest of time, waiting for a wave election to give them control over enough states,” Super said. “The only rules are sitting there in Article V.”


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