Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Texas Lawmakers Want a Convention to Amend the U.S. Constitution. What Would That Mean?

John H. Froehlich/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
"A convention ... could result in a wholesale change to the basic rules governing politics, economics and society in the United States."

From Texas Standard:

State lawmakers filed resolutions on Tuesday calling for a convention of states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said passing one of these resolutions is a legislative priority for the 2017 session. In 2015, the Texas legislature failed to pass a resolution that would allow the state to apply for a convention of states.

Gov. Greg Abbott said at an event marking the filings that there is still much need for a convention, despite a looming Donald Trump presidency.

"What is ailing America is far bigger than what any one president can fix," he said. “What we need is states to lead the way in proposing constitutional amendments.”

Abbott and other Republican lawmakers were urgently pushing for a convention of states in order to limit the authority of the Obama administration, but Mark Jones, with the Baker Institute at Rice University, says many of the same arguments hold under a Donald Trump presidency.

"It's not just one individual – be it President [Barack] Obama or President Trump – it's a federal government that, in their view, has gotten too large and engaged in what's often referred to by many detractors of the current situation as ‘coercive federalism,’” Jones says.

So what would top the agenda of a convention of states? Jones says the list includes getting term limits for members of Congress and a host of other reforms to scale back the power of the federal government. One California lawmaker is calling for electoral college reform. Jones also says there could be a call for a reinterpretation of the Commerce Clause - which gives the federal government the power to regulate economic trade among states and with other countries.

“[It’s] essentially a goal to make the federal government a weaker institution and to have a more balanced relationship between the federal government and the states,” Jones says, “based on the logic that over the past 40 to 50 years the balance of power has shifted steadily toward the federal government and away from the state government."

The Commerce Clause is often used by Congress to pass legislation ranging from marijuana sales to insurance. Some lawmakers see this as government overreach, Jones says, or a loophole where the federal government can insert itself into state matters.

Since the U.S. Constitution was first ratified, there has yet to be a convention of states, although it’s been part of the constitutional reform process from the beginning. It would take 34 states applying for a convention to make it happen.

Texas isn’t the first state asking for a convention. In 2016, eight states applied for a convention. And other states are considering it.

Once states convene, lawmakers would propose amendments to the Constitution. Those amendments would then have to be ratified by at least 38 states.

But Jones says after this election, now that the number of Democrats in state legislatures is at a record low, getting the number of states who are calling for a convention up to 20 should be easy.

"After 20 it becomes a much trickier and sticky arrangement,” Jones says. “We're likely, by this time next year, to have somewhere in the low 20s. And once you get to that level then it becomes easier and easier to get those final states. But it still is a long trek, particularly given the suspicions among many Democrats that this type of convention would be dominated by a Republican agenda."

But the idea of an actual convention of states happening is unlikely, Jones says, but a year or two ago it would have been an impossibility.

"It is going to be very difficult to get those 34 states to pass the necessary legislation in calling for the convention, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility,” Jones says. “It would be of transcendental importance if it actually occurred.”

A convention of states could lead to big changes in the rules that govern our society, Jones says.

"Our constitution is very rigid. It's very difficult to reform and can only be reformed by having a strong consensus,” Jones says. “A convention could open up the Constitution to really dramatic changes in ways that we haven't seen. … A convention, assuming it could get the requisite 34 states to call the convention and the 38 states to approve whatever came out of it, could result in a wholesale change to the basic rules governing politics, economics and society in the United States."

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.