Texas state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican, debates a call for a "convention of states" to amend the U.S. Constitution. Although many amendment topics have been proposed, the most popular one would require the federal government to balance its budget. (Eric Gay / The Associated Press)
Texas state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican, debates a call for a “convention of states” to amend the U.S. Constitution. Although many amendment topics have been proposed, the most popular one would require the federal government to balance its budget. (Eric Gay / The Associated Press)

Next month delegations of state lawmakers will travel to Phoenix, Arizona, to attend what organizers say will be the first formal convention of states since the Civil War. They’ll gather at the capitol, inside the turquoise-carpeted House chamber, and draw up rules for a hoped-for future meeting: a convention to draft an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

No “amendment convention” has taken place since the Constitution was written over 200 years ago. But the idea is gaining steam now, stoked by groups on the left and right that say amendments drafted and ratified by states are the last, best hope for fixing the nation’s broken political system and dysfunctional — some even say tyrannical — federal government.

“We have a Congress in the United States made up of two bodies — House and Senate — that are incapable of restricting their own power,” said Texas state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican. With the conventions, he said, states are stepping in to clean up the mess.

The current push for a convention began in the early years of the Obama administration, mostly driven by Republican lawmakers. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are big supporters. So are former presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio. Although many amendment topics have been proposed, the most popular would require the federal government to balance its budget.

Twenty-seven states have passed resolutions in favor of a balanced budget amendment since the 1970s, observers say. The Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, the main group currently pushing the idea, says it could get to 34 states before the next presidential election.

But to get the two-thirds of states required to force Congress to call a convention, the task force and its supporters will need to win over skeptical lawmakers and beat back opposing groups that say a convention called to discuss a single issue could end up rewriting crucial parts of the Constitution or scrapping the nation’s founding document altogether.

The two sides don’t even use the same words to discuss what they’re fighting over. Those in favor talk about an “amendment convention,” implying that only one amendment will be discussed. Those opposed say “Constitutional convention,” suggesting that the whole text could be rewritten.

The Arizona planning event, championed by Republicans and the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, will focus on the balanced budget proposal that’s closest to triggering a convention.

Arizona state Rep. Kelly Townsend, a Republican who heads the committee organizing the event, said she hopes it will reassure people that delegates to a convention won’t do anything crazy. “There will not be a quote-unquote runaway convention,” she said. “That’s not going to happen.”

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SOURCE: Sophie Quinton 
Pew Trust / Stateline

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