Not since 1787 in the closed, fire-lit rooms of a building in Philadelphia, where dozens of men met to hammer out the specifics of establishing a brand new federal republic, have so many amendments been proposed to the nation’s governing document at one time.
That is unless you count the creation of an entirely separate government in 1861 made up of 11 states, including Texas – the Confederacy.
But Texas’ governor is calling for a new constitutional convention.
Frustrated by what he thinks is a federal government “run amok” and overstepping their authority, Abbott proposed nine specific constitutional amendments to the more than 200-year-old document. Abbott’s proposals include allowing states to join together to nullify federal laws, weakening the power of the Supreme Court and more.
Is it an exercise in frustration, a public relations stunt, or a legitimate attempt to bring more power back to the states? Charles “Rocky” Rhodes, professor at South Texas College of Law, helps us sort out the details.
“This has never been done before in our history,” Rhodes says.
Rhodes says there are two different ways to initiate the constitutional amendment process. There’s the usual process – Congress, by a two-thirds vote of both houses, proposes a constitutional amendment for ratification by the states.
The other method: two-thirds of the state can apply to Congress for a constitutional convention for proposing amendments. That needs to also be ratified by the states.
“That is what Governor Abbott is calling for here,” Rhodes says. “This type of proposal has been made before at various times in our nation’s history to call one of these conventions. It’s just never succeeded.”
The idea of a constitutional convention isn’t a new one. Florida senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio recently floated the idea to impose congressional term limits, for example.
Abbott’s idea here, Rhodes says, is that he wants to alter the structure between the federal government and the states.
“His position is that we have deviated from our original constitutional principles and that the federal government now has too much power, and the states don’t have enough power,” Rhodes says. “What’s interesting is some of his proposals actually contravene ideas that were floated at the constitutional convention and that were embodied in our fundamental law.”
Even though abbott is trying to say “This is just a return to principles,” Rhodes says it’s really much more than that.
“(Abbott is) going well beyond what our constitutional framers thought with respect to how much power the states should have in relation to the federal government,” he says.
Specifically, Abbott has proposed that states should be able to band together to nullify a federal law.
But Rhodes says that is the exact opposite of the idea the constitution’s framers had in mind.
“The idea was that maybe the federal government should be able to enact laws to override any state laws,” Rhodes says. “(The framers) ended up rejecting that and just kept it where federal law could preempt – in other words override – state law in a case by case basis.”
Rhodes says Abbott’s proposals are quite radical.
“Many of these proposals would be very revolutionary in more ways than one,” he says. “They would be sending us back to the principles that we were operating under… at the revolutionary war. And that charter of government was a failure.”
Those 11 states only lasted under the charter of 1861 for 11 years. The constitution was the remedy for the failures of the charter that Abbott – seemingly – wants the country to return to, Rhodes says.
Does this movement spread beyond Abbott? Rhodes says yes.
“There’s definitely a large segment of the society that subscribes to Governor Abbott’s vision,” he says. “There’s a lot of individuals from across the nation who agree that the federal government has gotten too big and is intruding upon the province, the state. It relies on some selective constitutional history to come to that conclusion.”
But Rhodes says there’s no question that a large portion of individuals hold the same beliefs as Abbott.
“I don’t believe it’s going to be enough to create a fundamentally different constitution at this juncture in our history, which is what Governor Abbott is really proposing,” Rhodes says. “But I do think that this movement is significant. It’s not just a fringe movement and it certainly is a good way to get elected in Republican politics.”