Gov. Greg Abbott spent more than a year speaking and writing about the need to pass a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in order limit the power of the federal government. His chosen vehicle: invoking Article V of the Constitution to call a “convention of states.”
So when Abbott took the stage to deliver his State of the State message in January, there was every reason to expect he would spotlight the issue. But Abbott went one step further, designating it as one of his top four priorities for the legislative session.
“Senator Birdwell and Representative Phil King, you know as well as I do that the future of America cannot wait for tomorrow,” he said. “So I am declaring this an emergency item today.”
The two men Abbott singled out had already filed bills and supporting resolutions for a convention. 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.
Which got listener Jessica Larson thinking: that seems like a pretty tall order. So she asked us, “What would this require? How likely is it?”
A native of Chicago, Larson now works as a statistician for an Austin-based biotech company. She 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,” Larson says.
Professor Cal Jillson says he thinks that’s exactly why supporters of such a convention are acting now. Jillson, who teaches political science at Southern Methodist University, 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.”
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?
“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,” says Charles “Rocky” Rhodes, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston.
It took just over three years to get the first nine states to sign on. But if the effort ever does get close to the magic number of 34, Congress would probably act first.
“During the 1910 era, we had a situation where 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.”
Most members of Congress are anxious to avoid a convention. The last time one was called was 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. She testified against the convention of states measures when they came up before the Senate State Affairs Committee.
“What if a real Article V convention proposed amendments with unintended consequences that actually increased federal powers and did not restrict them?” she asked in her testimony.
Like Gov. Abbott, Harless is convinced the federal government is running amok. But she thinks nothing — even the threat of jail time, like Texas’s 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,’” she says. “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.”
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 Barbara 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,” Harless says. “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.”
It’s worth noting that, last November, Lt. Gov. 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.
The Texas Legislature, and the nine states that have already called for a convention, have all used model language from an organization called Citizens for Self-Governance. The Austin-based conservative political group is led by Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. The group did not respond to a request for an interview for this feature.
Note: This feature was produced as part of Texas Decides, a series produced in cooperation with the Texas Station Collaborative.