When Governor Abbott took the stage to deliver his State of the State message in January, people expected him to call for a constitutional convention. But Abbott went one step further.
“Senator Birdwell and Representative Phil King, you know as well as I do that the future of America cannot wait for tomorrow. So I am declaring this an emergency item today,” the governor said.
The two men Abbott singled out had already filed legislation for a so-called ‘convention of states.’ They want to pass amendments to the U.S. Constitution that, among other things, would require a balanced federal budget and impose term limits on members of Congress.
This got listener Jessica Larson, of Austin thinking – that seems like a pretty tall order. So she asked us:
“What would this require? How likely is it?”
Larson says for most of her life, the country has been more or less balanced between Republicans and Democrats. Today Republicans dominate the national government and almost two-thirds of the state governments.
“The idea that we would have a new Constitution just because the Republicans seem to hold the majority of power nationwide was a bit shocking to me,” she says.
Professor Cal Jillson says he thinks that’s exactly why supporters of such a convention are acting now. Jillson teaches political science at Southern Methodist University and says some Republicans see this as the perfect time to lock in key conservative preferences .
“…..because they may not, will not always control as much of government in the United States as they do today,” he says.
The Texas Senate has already approved these measures on a party line vote. They’re strongly favored to pass the House as well. If they do, Texas would become the tenth state to call for such a convention. So what would have to happen next? Charles “Rocky” Rhodes teaches constitutional law at South Texas College of Law Houston.
“The United States Constitution provides that on application by two-thirds of the state legislatures, which would be 34 states right now, that Congress is to call a convention to propose amendments that then are going to have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states in order to go into effect,” Rhodes says.
It took just over three years to get the first nine states to sign on. But, Rhodes says if the effort ever does get close to the magic number of 34, Congress would probably act first.
“During the 1910 era, we were only a couple of states short from calling a convention to require the direct election of senators,” Rhodes says. “Once Congress saw that [a] convention was about to be called, they went ahead and proposed that as a constitutional amendment.”
Rhodes says that’s because most members of Congress are anxious to avoid a convention. The last time one was called was in 1787. Delegates were sent to Philadelphia to amend the current governing federal charter – the Articles of Confederation – but wound up scrapping it entirely and writing the Constitution we have now. The possibility of something like that has conservatives like Barbara Harless, co-founder of the North Texas Citizens Lobby, afraid special interests could hijack a convention.
“What if a real Article V convention proposed amendments with unintended consequences that actually increased federal powers and did not restrict them?,” Harless said in testimony against the convention measures when they came up before the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Like Governor Abbott, Harless is convinced the federal government is running amuck. But she thinks nothing – even the threat of jail time, like Texas’ legislation mandates – would guarantee delegates would carry out their states’ wishes.
“People often ask me, ‘Well, Barbara, you know, you just want to sit around and do nothing. We want to do something.’ Well, drilling the holes in the bottom of the Titanic to let the water out is doing something, but you’re going to sink the boat,” Harless says.
Which leads to the final part of listener Jessica Larson’s question.
“What’s not being done because of his focus on this convention of states that most experts agree will lead nowhere?”
It’s still relatively early in the session to answer this, but Harless has one idea about how legislators might make better use of their time.
“The only thing that they’re really required to do is to set a budget. And, you know, there’ve been several times in the past decade where we’ve had to have special sessions because the budget wasn’t addressed,” she says.
It’s worth noting that last November, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick reserved more than two dozen low bill numbers for his top legislative priorities. He held Senate Bill 21 to call for a convention of states. For the budget? Senate Bill 1.