Last week, Georgia became the first state in the union (term used loosely) to pass a concerning bill. Senate Resolution 736, sponsored by state senator Cecil Staton and championed by state representative (and suspected Simpsons character) Buzz Brockaway, calls for a Convention of the States for the purposes of proposing amendments to the United States Constitution.
All 27 Amendments that have been added to the U.S. Constitution, thus far, have originated in Congress. Under Article V, two thirds of the membership may propose such an amendment, and a second threshold of three quarters of the states is required to ratify it. But there’s a second way, which skips the federal government altogether. Two thirds of the states can go over Congress’s collective head and call a convention — though, the same required three quarters ratification process still applies.
Georgia is the first state to pass a resolution supporting that more unconventional, and to this point entirely unsuccessful, route.
“I’m proud Georgia has taken the lead on the very important work of restoring our Republic,” Brockway said of the bill’s passage. “An Article V Convention of States would provide an opportunity for the citizens of this great nation to restore the balance of power between the States and the Federal government.”
“Restore balance of power,” or, you know, “complete usurpation of the power and role of the federal government.” But, as they say: tomato, aardvark. And let’s face it: Congress is broken. This seems like the only plausible avenue to go about altering our founding document, should we decide that’s something we would like to do.
Georgia has gone that route. Alabama is close, with a similar bill passing the state house in February. Florida is also entertaining the idea. And, with a third reading scheduled for Wednesday, Alaska appears to be next.
The effort was inspired by rightwing talk radio host Mark Levin, who in his most recent book, The Liberty Amendments, proposed a set of ten Amendments to combat what he describes as our current “age of post-constitutional soft tyranny.”
The Citizens for Self-Governance, headed by former Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, took the ball and ran with it, launching the Convention of States Project that advocates for passage of state resolutions. HJR22, Alaska’s version of the resolution, sailed through the House State Affairs Committee last month, complete with a full quarter of the lower chamber — all Republicans — signing on as co-sponsors. Tyler Bell, staff to State Senator John Coghill (R-North Pole) introduced the legislation last Thursday in it’s second committee of referral, the House Finance Committee:
We have quite the monumental resolution in front of us. From a lens greater than ourselves, we’re talking about looking at one of the great documents in human history, the United States Constitution. And a convention of the states is a means to operate and examine the document and amend the document without putting the entirety and integrity of the thing at risk. So, in general, it’s a great opportunity to operate without ramification, if you will.
The concept sounds nice enough. But the specifics wade deep into mucky territory far removed from the “without ramification, if you will” part.
The limited premise rests on the language of the resolution itself, which strives to prevent a “runaway convention,” where the entire founding document is put up for grabs for states to change. Like Georgia’s SR736 and Alabama’s HJR49, HJR22 purports to offer a limited scope of topics. Now, take a moment to envision all the amendments one could fit into these supposedly narrow parameters: “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office of federal government officials[.]”
“You cannot go outside this resolution,” the bill’s sponsor, Representative Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole) told the committee. Wilson’s intention was to alleviate concerns that the effort could conceivably open up the entire U.S. Constitution for broad rewrites (which it totally could). “It’s not about throwing the constitution out.” But with the ambiguity, that certainly should be a concern. A whole lot of changes could be described as fiscal restraints and/or limiting power — a point unintentionally emphasized by Convention of the States spokesman Michael Farris:
I think you will see something aimed at federal spending, something aimed at federal debt, federal regulation, and the power of the courts. For sure. Those are the big four that will almost certainly come out of the convention. But anything that goes beyond that subject matter would be illegal.
Wait, what does that leave? Naming airports?
“We’re not calling for a specific amendment,” Don Brand told the House Finance Committee last month. Brand serves as the Alaska legislative liaison for the Convention of States Project. And he’s right. What they’re calling for is a Constitutional Convention using vague, hard-to-argue, campaign-speak. Specifics are the enemy. States are fickle creatures. Thus, generally, if a single issue — we could use legalization of marijuana for an example — was proposed, opponents could latch on to objectionable provisions in the bill; the tax structure, the regulation, the age requirements, etc.. This is why every single Amendment passed in our nation’s history has come via the U.S. Congress, and not once by a coalition of states. By calling for a Constitutional Convention to, in effect, take the power back without saying how or which, opponents will have a harder time mounting a quantifiable objection.
Alaska has a pioneering spirit, but we should not pioneer the dismantling of the U.S. Constitution simply to feel good about making a statement.
“The number of different issues that is proposed within this resolution give me pause,” Representative Alan Austerman (R-Kodiak) warned his majority colleagues, adding that policies often change at the whim of whichever party controls Washington D.C. Only three members of the committee recommended passage of the resolution, with six representatives, including Republicans Lindsay Holmes, Mia Costello, and Alan Austerman, offering no recommendation.
Dillingham Democratic Representative Bryce Edgmon put it more succinctly, concluding: “It scares the bejeezus out of me.”
The full house could put the fool hardy idea to a vote as early as this week. HJR22 would then need to pass the senate, where similar legislation has already accumulated nine co-sponsors. Then, 32 other states would have to join Alaska and Georgia. After the convention were to hypothetically take place, 38 states would then need to ratify any amendments adopted by the convention’s delegates. Backers of the resolution think this could happen in as early as two to three years, but leave the time frame open ended.
Congress could, if it wished, enforce an expiration date on the effort. The precedent to set a “reasonable time frame for ratification” was established with the Dillon v. Gloss case, argued before the Supreme Court in 1921.
“I am to the point that, even if 34 states don’t get together, I want to send a message. I don’t want to write another resolution,” Wilson said. So, she wrote another resolution.
“Were something like this to go, if we were truly to have a Constitutional Convention,” Edgmon warned her, “you better be careful what you ask for because you might get it.”