CHARLESTON — Following arguments that calling a constitutional convention could allow the entire U.S. Constitution to be rewritten, members of the Senate Judiciary committee voted Monday to advance a resolution calling for such a convention.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution states that when called for by two-thirds of state legislatures – 34 – states may call a convention to amend the Constitution.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 4, sponsored by Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, would ask Congress to hold a convention to propose an amendment on congressional term limits.
Monday, the Senate judiciary committee — over the objection of some Democrats — advanced the resolution on a voice vote. It now goes to the full Senate.
“We’re playing with fire here and risking our entire Constitution,” said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. He argued that nothing would stop delegates to the convention from changing the rest of the Constitution.
“Here’s the question you have to ask yourself,” he said. “Are term limits, are the balanced budget amendment or any other amendment we propose worth the risk of having our entire Constitution changed or any part of it that’s important to you, whether it’s the First Amendment or Second Amendment or Social Security or anything else that could be changed by constitutional convention?”
Lawmakers have proposed similar resolutions in recent years, including calling for a constitutional convention to enact a balanced budget amendment.
Smith called those concerns “boogeyman stories.”
“This was put in here for a reason,” he said, referring to Article V, “and I believe all we’re doing is exercising our right to be heard at the national level when they’re not listening.”
In an interview Monday, Bob Bastress, a constitutional law professor at West Virginia University’s College of Law, noted that the last time such a convention was held, to amend the Articles of Confederation in 1787, “they ended up drafting a whole new Constitution which was drastically different from the articles.”
Although lawmakers supporting the amendment say it would be held to enact congressional term limits, Bastress said nothing would limit delegates from exploring topics other than “the politics of the moment.”
“We would expect that they would in fact limit themselves to that, but there’s no way of enforcing that except through the vote of the people in rejecting anything they come up with that was beyond their charge,” he said. “People could also decide we kind of like what they came up with, like installing Donald Trump for life or whatever. Basically the check is entirely political.”
Amendments would have to be approved by the legislatures of three-fourths – 38 – of the states.
Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, said Article V’s “purpose is a check on tyranny, just like the Constitution is.”
Locally, both Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, and Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, voted for the resolution. Baldwin, a sponsor, said he supports term limits.
“This resolution is narrowly focused just on term limits,” he said. “I respect my colleagues who fear this could potentially open up a can of worms. But that’s based on a lot of ‘what ifs’ that are beyond my control. Plus a convention may only ‘propose’ changes. States must ratify them. This resolution sends a message to Congress that we’re tired of the same old political machine.”
Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, spoke for the resolution.
“I love our Constitution and I think it is one of the best things that’s ever come out in the history of the world and it is because I love our Constitution that I am grateful our founders put something in there for that circumstance in which Congress would be hesitant to restrain itself,” she said.
Romano filibustered a similar resolution during the last night of the legislative session last year.
“They’ve run a billboard against me now in my hometown for the past five months, had to spend $100,000,” he said. “Who would spend that money? Who in the group of people who want term limits has $100,000 trying to intimidate Mike Romano? Think about who really wants this. It’s not about people worried about term limits. It’s about people who want a constitutional convention.”
In a follow-up interview, Romano noted that the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that provides model bills to legislatures and enjoys corporate support, is pushing for a convention.
It was unclear Monday how many states have called for a constitutional convention, but Romano said the number is close.
“You vote them in or out; that’s the ultimate term limit,” he said.
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