By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
The federal government will not reform itself. We’re past the point of electing different politicians or enacting different policies. Instead, the government’s underlying structure must be changed through a constitutional amendment process never before used in American history.
That was the message of Michael Farris, head of the Convention of States Project, during testimony before the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees Wednesday.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times using one process – Congress proposes a change, and three-fourths of the states ratify it. But Article V of the Constitution also includes another provision where two-thirds of state legislatures, or 34, would call for a convention. Delegates would consider constitutional amendments, each state having one vote. Proposed amendments would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states – 38, in other words.
That method has never been used successfully, but Farris says it’s the only hope to fix a broken system. His group is asking states to pass resolutions for a convention that would consider how to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit its powers and jurisdiction, and impose term limits on members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.
So far, Alaska, Georgia and Florida have passed nearly identical resolutions to that effect, and Farris’ group plans a hard push in about 20 states, including Arkansas, this upcoming year. Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindville, said he or someone else will introduce the resolution in 2015 if it has enough support.
Farris assured legislators that Article V’s high standards for ratification – 34 states to call a convention and 38 states to ratify – mean only amendments with broad popular support would have a chance of being ratified.
That being the case, the movement must expand beyond its current base and way of thinking. Its leaders and supporters appear to be almost exclusively very conservative individuals. During a presentation to a home-schooling group Wednesday, Farris suggested one change would involve clarifying the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause so that, “If the states can spend money on it, the federal government can’t.”
That would give a lot more power and responsibility to the states, but it also would mean ending Medicare and Social Security as we know it at the federal level. Such a change would be impossible to sell politically in a lot more than 13 states.
Legislators had varying reactions to Farris’ testimony. Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, a well-known civil rights advocate, said the same states’ rights argument was made on behalf of slaveholders and segregationists. Farris said that wouldn’t happen again and that legislators could instruct their delegates not to repeal the Constitution’s civil rights amendments. Later in the session, Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, and Rep. Jim Nickels, D-North Little Rock, said delegates could ignore whatever instructions legislators gave them. To that, Farris replied, “We’re really dealing in international law here is what this is is because it’s a meeting of sovereign states, and there are recognized principles of international law that govern, and there are no … exceptions in international law or in American law.”
Sovereign states being governed by international law? Such thinking would be a huge leap for a lot of people. Prior to the Civil War, the United States was a plural entity, as in “these United States.” Afterwards, it became a singular: “The United States.” The emerging national identity enabled the country to become the world’s greatest economic and military power. But it’s also led to a bloated, irresponsible, and unresponsive federal government. No state manages its business as badly as the federal government does, and many, including Arkansas, do it much, much better.
A rebalancing of power is needed, though not to the extent that Farris supports. An Article V convention may the best hope of doing that because, as he argued, the government will not reform itself. And with only 13 states required to kill any measure, what’s the worst that’s likely to happen? A bunch of people gather in one place and argue forever without accomplishing anything?
We already have that. It’s called Congress. So if this just turns out to be a big waste of time, we can live with that. What we can’t live with is not trying. Thanks to Article V’s parameters, a convention probably can’t hurt, and it might do some good. I’m for it – a convention, at least, and then let’s see what amendments are proposed.