34 States Call for Constitutional Convention — and Possible Rewrite

Friday, 11 Apr 2014 04:57 PM

By Andrea Billups

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Even with Michigan recently becoming the 34th state to call for a Constitutional Convention, it's not at all certain that a rewrite of the nation's founding document is close at hand.

House Speaker John Boehner is reviewing whether the action by Michigan has triggered the constitutional mandate that Congress call such a convention.

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California recently asked Boehner for clarification as to where the state count stands, and if Michigan has tipped the two-thirds majority needed to make the convention call.

"With the recent decision by Michigan lawmakers, it is important that the House — and those of us who support a balanced budget amendment — determine whether the necessary number of states have acted and the appropriate role of Congress should be in this case," Hunter wrote to Boehner.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told The Washington Times that the Republican leader will have his lawyers review the request.

What may give the speaker pause in his decision is that several states long ago rescinded their calls for a convention, although there is nothing in the Constitution that allows them to do that.

Also, states have made the requests in differing forms, with some calling to confine such a convention to specific amendments, such as one requiring a balanced federal budget.

For example, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and New Hampshire called for a convention in the 1970s, and all later rescinded the requests. While they were not the only states to rescind the measure, since 2010 the four states have again called for a convention to specifically deal with a balanced-budget amendment.

The resulting confusion, and lack of clear guidance in the Constitution, will have to be sorted out by the congressional leadership since Article 5 says that Congress "shall call a convention for proposing amendments" when requested by enough states.

Under Article 5 of the Constitution, such a convention can be convened when requested by two-thirds of the states, and it is one of two ways to propose amendments to the nation's founding document.

The other method — by which all previous constitutional amendments have been initiated — requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. Ratifying amendments then require three-fourths of the states to approve.

Many but not all of the states have called for a convention that would specifically seek to balance the budget.

"A balanced budget amendment is long overdue and remains an effective tool to address runaway spending and deficits," Hunter said.

Unless called to deal with a specific issue, some legal experts warn a "runaway" convention could create chaos.

"Let's assume that we get Congress to call for a convention, and we are deliberating about one item. Maybe that would stick. But how can you be confident that once you open the door to a constitutional convention, even if for one narrow amendment, that it won't just become a runaway convention?" said Steve Hayward, a visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

"It seems to me that our Constitution may have problems these days, but I think most conservatives would be very nervous about opening it up to a new convention," Hayward told Newsmax.

Columnist George Will suggested a good arrangement on the budget issue might be one prescribed by the Goldwater Institute called "The Compact for America."

Will, writing in his April 10 column, outlines an Article 5 convention focused on writing a narrowly drawn balanced-budget amendment "written precisely enough to preclude evasion by the political class."

"State legislatures can form a compact — a cooperative agreement — to call a convention for the codified, one-item agenda of ratifying the balanced-budget amendment precisely stipulated in advance," Will said.

Will notes that in calling for a convention, Congress has no discretion, meaning it is clear that if two-thirds of state legislatures ask, it must happen."

Conservative radio talk-show host and author Mark Levin also has been out front in pushing for such a convention. In his best-selling book "The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic," he proposes 11 constitutional amendments that he believes should be considered by the gathering.

And the group Citizens for Self-Governance (CSG), headed by Tea Party Patriots co-founder and former spokesman Mark Meckler, is promoting a convention on the web at conventionofstates.com.

"A Convention of States needs to be called to ensure that we are able to debate and impose a complete package of restraints on the misuse of power by all branches of the federal government," CSG wrote on its website.

Louis Fisher, a scholar-in-residence at the Constitution Project, calls the idea a "gimmick," especially when it comes to taking up an issue like a balanced budget amendment.

"We always, instead of asking politicians to be responsible, are looking for some outside gimmick. A constitutional convention and amendment would be a constitutional gimmick," said Fisher, who worked in Congress for 40 years and has testified before congressional panels as far back as the Graham-Rudman Act in 1985.

Fisher counseled caution before attempting to rewrite parts of the Constitution.

"Just think about the amendment to eliminate alcohol. Oh, that worked out!"
Fisher told Newsmax. "We finally had to repeal that, and it became one of the stupidest amendments possible."

Hayward, at the University of Colorado, noted there are ways for issues to advance without constitutional authority. He cited the Equal Rights Amendment as an example. It was close to being ratified but fell short.

"It's not always necessary to actually get an amendment of the Constitution to change our constitutional thought," he said. "Is there anything that feminists wanted in the ERA that they haven't gotten? They have pretty much gotten what they want over time."

While some have argued that a rethink of the Constitution might not be a bad idea, Hayward isn't so sure that it wouldn't create chaos in the forms of mass lawsuits that would likely land on the Supreme Court's steps for review.

Having to do the rewriting in public with CSPAN broadcasting every moment might also prove problematic for a modern-day convention, he said.

"The original Constitutional Convention in 1787 met behind closed doors, there was no press coverage and … there were lots of compromises and back-door dealing. You couldn't do that now. And so it would make it harder."


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