Over the objections of Democrats, a House committee has cleared the way for Tennessee to become the fifth state to call for a national convention on amending the U.S. Constitution to curb “abuses of power” by the federal government and to impose term limits for members of Congress.
The movement is led in Tennessee by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, who attended a 2013 gathering of representatives from more than 30 states arranged by Citizens for Self-Governance.
The group began a nationally organized push for passage last year and, according to its website, the legislatures in four states — Alabama, Alaska, Georgia and Florida — quickly adopted resolutions calling for a “convention of the states,” as allowed by Article 5 of the Constitution, to propose amendments. Approval of 34 states — two-thirds — would be needed to call such a convention
In Tennessee, Bell’s SJR67 was approved by the Senate 23-5 last year. Butt brought the measure before the House State Government Committee last week where, after lengthy debate, it was approved on a 5-3 party-line vote — all Republicans supporting, all Democrats opposed.
Mack Meckler, president of CSG and described on that organization’s website as previously the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, told the committee that Tennessee has the opportunity to hold a “special place” in the movement’s history by becoming the first state to approve the resolution in 2016.
That would seem likely, given that Butt said 57 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of the resolution — well over the 50 needed for passage. The measure could be on the House floor as early as Thursday.
‘convention is Last line of defense’
The resolution declares that the state-called convention would be “limited to proposing amendments to the United States Constitution that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.”
Meckler said an Article 5 convention is the “last line of defense for liberty in America” at a time when “the republic is in danger.” Butt said states could use the convention to propose amendment to curb “skyrocketing” federal debt, unwarranted regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and other “bureaucrats in Washington” and stop “hundreds of unfunded mandates” from the federal government that must be financed by states.
“If ever there was a time in the history of our republic that states need to take advantage of having that constitutional authority (to call a convention), it is now,” she said.
Only one Republican on the committee, Rep. Bill Sanderson of Kenton, voiced misgivings about the proposal, though he still voted for it. Sanderson noted that the language of the resolution provided a “big umbrella” that could lead to all sorts of amendments, that the state is dependent on the federal government for about 40 percent of its budget and the proposition could be seen as an effort at “micromanaging of Congress.” While the resolution suggests term limits for congressmen, he noted there are no term limits for state legislators.
Butt responded that any proposed amendments would require broad agreement among states and then would face the constitutional amendment approval process, providing another hurdle and assuring that “nothing egregious is going to get out of these state legislatures.”
“We are saying we trust our state legislatures,” she said.
Democrats criticized several aspects of the effort, including the apparent domination of the movement by Republicans and a lack of assurance that any Democrats would be included in Tennessee’s delegation to such a convention — perhaps in essence that they did not trust Tennessee’s GOP majority.
“You’re turning everything over to a supermajority of people on one state,” said Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar. “There will be a whole lot of people left out of a whole lot of stuff. … You’ll run right over us again.”
Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, said curbs on federal spending could dramatically impact state government since it provides much of the state’s budget and questioned whether the Legislature would be “prepared to pass a state income tax to replace it.”
Butt estimated that half of the federal money provided to Tennessee was for mandates that could be removed with an appropriate constitutional amendment.’
A checkered history in Tennessee
An Internet search indicates that Article 5 conventions have been proposed many times in the past, but none has ever led to a enactment of constitutional amendment.
Not mentioned in the hearing last week was a vote by the Tennessee Legislature in 2010 to rescind “any and all prior applications by the General Assembly to the Congress” for state-initiated constitutional conventions — specifically including three resolutions that were passed in 1977, when Democrats held a majority. One of those dealt with curbs on federal spending, a second with term limits for federal judges and the third with presidential power to use a line-item veto in the federal budget.
The 2010 rescind resolution was sponsored by Republicans and all no votes came from Democrats, though several voted for it and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, signed it. One clause of that resolution (approved as HJR30 at the time) reads:
“There is no need for and there is in fact great danger in a new constitution or in opening the Constitution to sweeping changes, the adoption of which would only create legal chaos in this nation and only begin the process of another two centuries of litigation over its meaning and interpretation.”
In 2014, the House and Senate approved a resolution calling for a state-initiated convention limited to imposing constitutional restrictions on federal deficit spending. Both chambers also approved a so-called “faithful delegate” law that any Tennessee representative to a constitutional convention must adhere to any limits on a proposed amendment directed by the Legislature.
Note/correction: The original version of this post stated incorrectly in the last paragraph that the 2014 budget amendment did not pass the House. It did, 89-2-3, under sponsorship of Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, and then passed the Senate 29-0.