Election News

Will Republicans take religious exemptions law to constitutional convention?

A Wyoming measure calling for a convention on a balanced budget amendment was shelved in 2015 after the state Senate altered it to make it contingent on assurances that Wyoming would not see a reduction in federal revenue.

Montana’s Republican-led House overwhelmingly defeated a resolution calling for a convention on a balanced budget amendment when it last met in 2015. Opponents expressed fears of a “runaway convention” during which delegates might propose all types of possible amendments.

Similar fears have thwarted past attempts at passing a balanced budget amendment. The movement peaked at 32 states when Missouri passed a resolution calling for a convention in 1983, then dipped to about half that as numerous states rescinded their resolutions. The tally began growing again after Republicans swept into control of many capitols in 2010.

The possibility of a convention dominated by delegates from a single party is “alarming,” said Carolyn Fiddler, a spokeswoman for the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

“There are no rules. They can just throw out the whole Constitution if they want to,” Fiddler said. “It’s the wildest of Wild West situations.”

Supporters of a balanced budget amendment hope to allay such fears by convening this coming summer in Nashville, Tennessee, to propose rules and procedures for a future convention on constitutional amendments. They contend a convention is unlikely to veer off into contentious issues such as abortion and gun rights because amendments ultimately will need bipartisan appeal to win ratification from 38 states.

The mere possibility of a state-initiated convention has been enough to prompt Congress to action in the past. With states just shy of the two-thirds mark in 1912, Congress instead wrote its own amendment requiring senators to be elected by a vote of the people rather than through state legislatures. The states then ratified the amendment.

But Congress has repeatedly fallen short of the two-thirds vote needed to refer a balanced budget amendment to the states. The last time both chambers tried was in 2011.

During the past three years, eight states have passed resolutions calling for a convention that would go beyond a balanced budget amendment to include other fiscal restraints, term limits for Congress and federal officials, and unspecified restrictions on federal power. Though still far from the two-thirds threshold, supporters of those causes believe the Republican rise to power could help their movement grow rapidly.

“With the election and things that have happened, it provides really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore critical structural checks in our constitutional system,” said Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, a Republican attorney.

Ivory was elected in September as the presiding officer of a simulated convention of the states designed to demonstrate that the method of proposing constitutional amendments actually can work. Among those present at the event was law professor Randy Barnett, director of the Center for the Constitution at Georgetown University.

“Amending the Constitution is always a longshot, no matter how you go about it,” Barnett said. But if 34 states — including 33 Republican ones — call for such a convention, “it would be very difficult for the Congress to stop that.”

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