A national constitutional convention to fight back against federal power is being discussed in the General Assembly, but contrary to what Tennesseans might assume, legislators looking at that possibility don’t want such a convention to happen.
At the same time, if one were to happen, those same legislators want to be prepared and make sure the convention is narrowly focused, which is why they are devoting time and effort to protect the process.
Enough backlash against Washington has surfaced across the nation that states find themselves looking for options, and the notion of a national constitutional convention to rein in federal power has grown.
The negative reaction to the recent health care legislation in Washington might have been the last straw in the debate. The constitutional convention issue is distinctly separate from the efforts in some states calling for a lawsuit against the federal government on grounds that the health care bill is unconstitutional.
The Tennessee General Assembly has a group of legislators addressing state sovereignty issues, and they have been involved in serious discussions about actions to take. The idea of a constitutional convention, however, scares many of those same lawmakers, because they fear a runaway convention, where things could get out of control and the country could find itself with provisions it never wanted.
One of the most immediate issues in Tennessee is the fact that this state apparently would not even have to call for a constitutional convention, because it already has a call on the books. It dates to 1977, when Tennessee sought a convention over issues involving the federal judiciary, revenues and the power of the president to veto items in an appropriations budget. There is some disagreement, however, as to whether a call issued by a past General Assembly is binding to the current General Assembly.
Some legislators want Tennessee’s call rescinded.
The General Assembly has a resolution scheduled on the House calendar for Thursday, sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, the Republican caucus chair, to rescind three specific resolutions from 1977 and any other resolutions passed “at any time” calling for a federal constitutional convention.
Such a convention is made possible by Article V of the U.S. Constitution. Two-thirds of the states — 34 of 50 — are required to create a constitutional convention. Amendments to the Constitution from such a convention would have to be ratified by both houses of the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (38 of the 50).
State Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, has been at the forefront of these issues and last year guided HJR108, which urged Congress to recognize Tennessee’s sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. A committee was formed to communicate with the other 49 states. Lynn has been in a working group under the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Lynn also hints she might support a constitutional convention under the right circumstances — namely, that she and her philosophical allies could control its outcome.
“What we’re trying to do is create firewalls against a runaway convention, so we could do something like legally bind delegates to a convention, so they would be bound to vote the way the legislature that sent them there instructed them to vote,” Lynn said. “We’re doing a lot of research to see if there’s any precedent for this.
“What we’re trying to do is be prepared.”
The irony, she says, is Congress could handle all of this if it wanted to do so.
“I think everything that has been done so far could be corrected in a weekend,” she said. “They could vote to change everything in a weekend. All it takes is the political will.”
Lynn said if a convention did become a reality, she would like to see a change to make it easier for states, not the federal government, to amend the Constitution.
The efforts related to a constitutional convention have gone largely under the radar. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who led the Senate to urge Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to join lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform act, was asked last weekend if he had heard discussion of a constitutional convention, and he said he had not. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, in Nashville last Friday, was asked if he had heard about the issue.
“When you say heard, yes, I’ve read about people discussing it. But there has been no discussion of it in the halls of Congress, or at least not in the halls I’ve been around,” Corker said.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, pointing to the unfunded mandate in the health care legislation, said he could see that people are worked up about the federal government.
“All I would say is the federal government has thrown such bombs into the states you could see all across the country states taking action to try to stand against this mandate,” Wamp said. “I would ask anyone who says we might not have a constitutional convention how we are going to pay for this mandate.
“I’m open to whatever the possibilities are.”
But Wamp said there is reason for caution.
“Constitutional conventions are messy and dangerous, and you have to be very sure what we’re trying to accomplish as a state to open that up. I think, frankly, the way the federal government is wreaking havoc on states there may be talk like this in other states coming up over the next three to four years.”
State Rep. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, another active figure in the Legislature on Tenth Amendment issues, said she, too, is concerned about the pitfalls of a convention.
“My concern about a national constitutional convention is that my understanding is everything gets opened up, and I’m not comfortable with us opening up everything in the U.S. Constitution. I don’t think that’s wise,” she said.
“People are very concerned about this health care reform act being just shoved down our throats, when we had the Republicans in Congress trying desperately to get the Democrats to at least acknowledge some of the ideas and programs they wanted to do.”
Maggart said she, too, doesn’t see the need to go so far as a constitutional convention.
“I think the Tenth Amendment is enough to do it,” she said. “Why people are not paying attention to that in Congress I don’t know. I can tell you that the people here in Tennessee are paying attention to the Tenth Amendment. They know. They can read. They know what it means.”
The Tenth Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”