Some state legislators think America is so broken we need a constitutional convention 

Conventional Wisdom

The U.S. of A. is in dire straits, folks, and if we don't do something about it fast, it just might be the end of 'Merica as we know it. Or at least that's the view of state Rep. Bill Taylor, a Republican from Aiken. And he aims to do something about it. "This is about saving the union," Taylor says. "The union is supposed to be about the union of states, not the federal government mandating what we do down to the size of our toilet bowls and the light bulbs we use."

Taylor is the sponsor of a pair of bills calling for all 50 states to come together at a convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Lowcountry's own Sen. Larry Grooms has proposed similar bills in the state Senate, where they're getting a serious hearing from a Senate subcommittee.

Grooms and Taylor are not alone.

Many Americans — primarily older and white — are angry about the national debt. They're angry about federal taxation and spending. They're angry about Obamacare. They're angry about EPA regulations. They're angry about being angry. And there's a growing push to do something about it.

Efforts to call a constitutional convention — particularly to pass a balanced budget amendment — have been around for years. But they've gained new momentum and some mainstream attention thanks to groups like the Convention of States Project and Balanced Budget Forever. "It represents a frustration with existing federalism and the growth of the welfare state," says David Woodard, a Clemson political scientist and Republican consultant. "People are no longer wanting to work through the system."

That said, Woodard admits the idea is "pretty radical," adding, "But demanding times demand big solutions, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility."

Sen. Shane Massey of Edgefield heads up the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that's considering the amendment bills. "I think the one consistency is that when you start talking about making changes to the U.S. Constitution, I think that evokes a good bit of passion," he says. "We've only changed the Constitution 27 times, and 10 of those came at the same time."

"There is concern that we don't know what's going to happen so we shouldn't do anything," Massey says. "There is concern that, yeah, it's a drastic move, but maybe we're at that point that we've got to take drastic moves."

A History Lesson

First, let's get our terms straight, or Bob Menges, state director of the Convention of States Project in South Carolina, might get annoyed. There was only one constitutional convention: It happened in 1787, when the founders wrote the Constitution. According to Menges, today's effort "is called a convention of states." He says, "That is the historically accurate term."

Article V of the U.S. Constitution lays out two ways the constitution can be amended. The first has been used 27 times: Congress, by a two-thirds vote, proposes an amendment. The second way has never been used: Two-thirds of state legislatures make an application to Congress for a convention at which delegates from the states would propose amendments. The governor wouldn't be involved; the state legislature simply has to approve the application. Federal lawmakers would not be involved, either, Menges says.

"The founders put this in the Constitution for just a day like today," Taylor says. "The federal government is a child of the states, not our parent. And people in the last 75 years have forgotten that. We created the federal government and therefore we're the parent."

Like many people interested in the Article V movement, Taylor blames the 17th amendment, which gave us direct popular election of U.S. senators, for stripping the states of power. Before it was ratified in 1913, state legislators chose U.S. senators. Now, Taylor says, "The states don't have a voice except a protest voice. And that's not working out very well."

No matter which way an amendment is proposed, three-quarters of states, or 38, have to ratify it for it to become law. Over the past couple hundred years, says Menges, 415 applications have been entered into the congressional record for a convention of states. But two-thirds of states — 34 — have never put forward the same application.

The balanced budget amendment movement has come close. Since the late 1970s, 25 states have called for a convention on such an amendment, but South Carolina is not among those 25 states.

Which brings us to the Convention of States Project, an effort to get states to pass bills with identical language calling for some broader changes in three categories: to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and to impose term limits. So far, three states — Alaska, Florida, and Georgia — have passed the exact language being pushed by the Convention of States Project.

At the moment, the S.C. Senate is actually considering several bills related to Article V. That way, the thinking goes, whichever effort gets two-thirds of states on board first will lead to a convention. One bill calls for a balanced budget amendment. Another mirrors the Convention of States Project language. A third calls for a convention to create an amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman, though that bill doesn't seem to be getting much consideration; Taylor says he doubts 38 states would ratify such an amendment.

The New Litmus Test

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is a relatively moderate guy. He expanded Medicaid under Obamacare in his state. He's supported the federal Common Core education standards. But he's on a multi-state tour right now to persuade 10 more state legislatures to call for a convention of states to propose a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Kasich stood with S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms at the State House Feb. 19 to push the idea. Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican, is the primary sponsor of several of the state's pending Article V bills. The other reason for Kasich's multi-state swing? He's considering running for president in 2016. And the balanced budget amendment convention could be just the angle Kasich needs to stand out to conservatives.

"You're not going to hear Jeb Bush talk about something like this," Woodard says, of Kasich. "It might be a way for him to get a toehold where he doesn't have one now."

With the election looming, Woodard says, "We'll have all these guys down here looking for who can catch the eye of the electorate, catch their imagination when they're kind of discouraged. Maybe this is that thing."

Some other presidential contenders support a convention of states, too — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian darling from Kentucky; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who in January said she was "seriously interested" in running; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

What about South Carolina's own possible presidential contender, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham?

Asked whether Graham supports a convention of states, his staffers say the senator hadn't been asked specifically about that before, as it's a state-driven issue, but that he has long supported a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Indeed, efforts continue among GOP legislators in Washington to pass a balanced budget amendment. And one of the hopes of some Article V folks is that their efforts might push Washington further toward such a change.

The Opposition

While the convention movement seems tailor-made for right-wingers worried about federal overreach, there's actually a lot of opposition out there. A good half of the people who spoke at a Feb. 18 state Senate subcommittee hearing were opposed to an Article V convention. According to Menges, this opposition is coming largely from one source: the John Birch Society.

Wait, what?

Yes, the John Birch Society, which formed in the 1950s to oppose communism and foment fears of a New World Order, is these days spending a lot of its time stirring up opposition to an Article V convention. Evan Mulch, coordinator for the John Birch Society in South Carolina, admits as much.

"We believe that the people that would go to this convention would likely ... either make amendments or change the Constitution in a way that would really harm the Constitution," Mulch says. "If you read Article V, it's not really well defined how a convention would take place, who's in charge of it."

"We believe it's like opening Pandora's Box," he adds. "There's very powerful, wealthy people around the world who want to take away our sovereignty. There's people such as George Soros, who would work as hard as possible to harm the country."

Mulch continues, "Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s we had a moral and a very religious group of people living in America that respected individual rights a lot more so than they do now."

Not surprisingly, right-wing Article V supporters have to spend a lot of time convincing their Tea Party compatriots that the process wouldn't get hijacked by liberals.

As for a runaway convention, Taylor says that even if a convention were to produce some "loony amendments," it's unlikely 38 states would then go on to ratify them. "They can't shred the Constitution. They can only propose amendments. It's a very high threshold to approve and ratify amendments to the Constitution ... It only takes 13 states to veto any constitutional amendment, so they'd better be pretty damn good. To me the arguments against this are very weak; they're almost lunacy. They haven't looked at the map. Do you think the Southern states would pass something loony?"

Still, the entire Article V movement worries S.C. Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg Republican who once proposed the idea of South Carolina printing its own money. "I hope we are able to right the ship. I just don't know if this is the method," Bright said. Specifically, he's worried that federal judges — who he believes have overreached their constitutional powers — would just mess with whatever changes came out of a convention.

He also has concerns about who the state would send to such a convention. "I don't think we have a Jefferson or a Madison to send," Bright says. "Some of us may think of ourselves as such, but I don't see those men here today."

The Spartanburg senator adds, "We've got such a good document. The amendments have been perverted, but at the end of the day I do not want to risk this republic on something that could be dangerous."

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