Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics Calling for a Convention of States

Calling for a Convention of States

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Photo from Gavel Alaska, 360North.org
Photo from Gavel Alaska, 360North.org

One thing needs to be clear up front: HJR22 doesn’t actually do anything. Two house committees have devoted time, effort, and testimony to it. The full state house devoted all Wednesday afternoon to a discussion surrounding what other components could be added to it. But, at the end of the day, we need to be really clear about the underlying fact: it does not do anything.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole), requests an Article V convention of the states “to propose amendments to the Constitution of the United States that 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[.]”

Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides an amendment process as an alternative to the traditional method of a two-thirds vote of Congress, instead seeking 34 (two thirds of the) states to call for a convention. Each state would be in charge of establishing their own criteria for how delegates would be selected, and in the end, each state would be represented by a single vote. Any amendments passed in the convention would then need to be ratified by 38 (three quarters) of the 50 states. The hardships endured by trying to get 34 — and then 38 — states to agree on anything has resulted in an Article V Convention never occurring in the history of the United States. But, as I wrote last week, a new push is afoot. Georgia has already passed a resolution calling for the convention, and Florida, Alabama, and Alaska all have active legislation aimed for achieving that end.

The major complaint — one shared by members of both parties in Alaska — is that such action could result in a “runaway convention,” in which the entirety of our founding document would be open up to broad edits. In the past, proposed constitutional amendments have been specific: The Blaine Amendment, for instance, sought to ban public funds from being used to support religious organizations. The “Every Vote Counts” Amendment would have abolished the electoral college. The People’s Rights Amendment sought to establish that corporations are not people.

Those examples share one uniform attribute which sharply distinguishes past attempts from the current “Convention of States” movement: they are specific. Despite Rep. Wilson’s oft repeated refrain that no amendments would be lawful if they deviated from the “specifics” mentioned in HJR22, one has to admit that unnamed fiscal restraints, unspecified limitations on power and jurisdiction, and undefined term limits on the federal government leaves quite a bit of wiggle room.

 

Political Theatre.

The Democratic Minority in the state house is keenly aware that there would be no way to prevent a “runaway convention.” Once a convention is called, anything is fair game. When the resolution came to the floor, the minority caucus came ready to articulate that point. “If we say we want a constitutional convention, regardless of what the ‘whereases’ or reasons are,” Representative Guttenberg (R-Fairbanks) told his colleagues, “the convention body will set the agenda, regardless of what we do here.”

Powerless to stop passage but confident in their objections, they dedicated the afternoon into early evening to an impressive display of political theatre, recommending more topics that convention should include. Any amendment the body adopted would likely serve as a poison pill, if 34 states pulled off the impossible and called for a resolution. Congress could invalidate the request, citing the fact that there were conflicting resolutions.

“If we are going to go back and look at the tweaks to the constitution that we find necessary,” Representative Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) said, introducing the first attempted amendment, “nothing stands out more clearly, to me, in my opinion, than the Second Amendment; our Second Amendment rights.”

Kawasaki proposed that the convention consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution strengthening the Second Amendment, so that it paralleled the Alaska state constitution’s acknowledgment of the individual right to bear arms.

Representative Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) recommended that a convention include the topic of adopting the Employment Non Discrimination Act — federal legislation codifying workplace protections for LGBT Americans currently stalled in the U.S. House (a state-specific bill is similarly stalled in committee in Juneau). “I think that, at bottom, what HJR22 is about,” Josephson said, “is about saying ‘it’s no longer 1789, it’s 2014, and we need to make some changes.'”

Representative Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) proposed that the convention address an equal pay amendment, to close the pay gap between men and women. Representative Herron asked that the section regarding term limits should be more targeted. After all, what would Alaska look like had Ted Stevens been limited to two terms?

Representative Wilson had had enough:

I guess I want to be a little more clear about what these amendments are doing. Again, we are deleting the reason for the resolution, okay? And all four of the [amendments]… if they were all one, than we could have been done with this. But all you’re doing is adding in more whereases; why you want to have a convention of the states. But, you’re not saying what you want to do there. So maybe it is, you want to open it up to absolutely everything because you don’t want to accomplish anything. And I think that’s exactly what happens when you’re not being specific.

She repeated the “specifics” included in HJR22: to impose (unspecific) fiscal restraints on the federal government, to limit the power (in a way to be determined later) of the federal government, and impose (unclarified) term limits on (unspecified) federal officials.

All amendments were handily shot down along party lines. The bill passed 24-13. Majority caucus members Alan Austerman (R-Kodiak), Paul Seaton (R-Homer), and Ben Nageak (D-Barrow), who caucuses with the majority, crossed over to support the minority’s opposition to HJR22. The bill now moves on to the senate.

But, hey, one step closer to the people getting to take part in the process, right?

 

Power to the people (subject to legislative approval).

In a move much more illustrative of a pre-17th Amendment world, sure to set libertarians’ hair on the fire, Wilson’s delegate selection process rings much more aristocratic then republican in nature. The sales pitch for the Convention of States has consistently been that it would be an open and transparent way to seize power from corrupt politicians and return control to the people. Wilson’s next step was to lay out the procedural groundwork for how delegates would be selected.

Before the house finalized passage of HJR22, the North Pole Republican had already filed a bill with that aim. HB310 creates a selection process where delegates are picked by, and would serve at the pleasure of, the legislature. With a very short leash.

The supportive bill, HB310, affords the state legislature both the power to appoint delegates and the ability to restrict the entirety of their participation in the convention. “We’re going to tell them what to do,” Wilson told the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday. “If they don’t do what we want them to do, we will dismiss them.”

If the delegates act outside of their explicit instructions, as instructed by the legislature, “it voids whatever they have done, they are dismissed, and we can charge them with a class C felony,” Wilson said. The crime of autonomy would, if lawmakers pressed the issue, bar wayward delegate(s) from voting in future elections. Delegates would be direct agents of the state legislatures. They also would not be paid for time, travel, or lodging, limiting the people who could afford to be selected to a distinct, deep-pocketed few.