State lawmakers look to shift power away from Washington

WATCHING WASHINGTON: State lawmakers from Florida to Alaska gathered this week to hash out ideas for considering amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A movement is afoot from state lawmakers who believe the federal government has amassed far too much power, to the detriment of state authority and autonomy.

They’re embarking on a massive undertaking — crafting a set of guidelines for considering amendments to the U.S. Constitution in order to shift more power back to the states.

Just blocks from the White House, U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., state lawmakers representing different political stripes and 28 states from Alaska to Florida this week brainstormed suggestions for going about an Article V convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Their specific causes are many, ranging from campaign finance reform after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, to EPA regulation overreach, to the need for a balanced federal budget amendment. Those differences will need refining eventually. Still, lawmakers rallied around one thing at a gathering of the Assembly of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C. — the need to reign in Washington.

“I want to make sure that my grandchildren have a vibrant Constitution that protects their freedom,” said Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican delegate from Virginia who is pushing a resolution for a convention in that state.

Article V provides two routes for changing the U.S. Constitution. One involves votes from Congress. The Founding Fathers, realizing Congress wouldn’t want to check its own power, made for another way. If two-thirds of the states petition Congress for a convention of the states, Congress is required to call one. Anything proposed at a convention, then, must be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

“We’ve got the jurisdiction to amend the Constitution,” Wisconsin Republican Assemblyman Chris Kapenga told his fellow lawmakers. “… History shows that there’s this centralization of power, and it doesn’t matter what civilization, this is a trend that you can look back on. There’s a centralization of power which always ends up leading to abuse.”

Jason Holsman, a Democratic Missouri state senator and co-president of ASL, said 36 states have already made requests to Congress, more than the 34-state threshold. But Congress isn’t exactly tracking that.

“Congress isn’t doing their job of counting their calls,” Holsman told Watchdog.org.

States’ requests for an Article V convention differ, Holsman said, and Congress has every incentive not to grant those requests.

The process for going about an Article V convention isn’t spelled out in the Constitution, leaving those details up to the states. So, the Assembly of State Legislatures, made up entirely of state lawmakers, was born. Gathering for the first time at George Washington’s home of Mount Vernon last December, then in Indianapolis over the summer, and again this week in Washington, D.C., they hope in the months and years ahead to outline a possible process for a convention.

ASL, as state lawmakers made it clear, doesn’t have any legislative authority. The group is simply coming up with a framework for possible rules and procedures that delegates at an actual convention could adopt.

Still, lawmakers urged the need for transparency and inclusiveness. This week’s ASL gathering wasn’t widely publicized, and although CSPAN aired part of it, only current state lawmakers and credentialed media could actually be in the room at the Naval Heritage Center on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We’re going to be judged later by how inclusive we are,” said Ben Smaltz, a Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives.

Representatives from Florida, a state with arguably the strongest open records laws in the nation, particularly urged the need for transparency.

“Why wouldn’t we want every legislator in America to be a member of this organization?” asked Republican Florida Rep. John Wood.

An Article V convention is something that hasn’t happened in the entire history of the United States, largely because it’s so difficult to build that consensus.

In years past, the threat of a convention has been reason enough for Congress to change the laws. The threat of an Article V convention in the early 20th century forced Congress to push the 17th Amendment, transferring the power to choose U.S. senators from state legislatures to the people by popular vote.

The time to build support for this movement, said Democratic Illinois Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, is now.

“People are so discontent with Congress that it’s easy to get their ear right now like never before,” said Chapa LaVia, who helped pass a resolution in the Illinois statehouse this month calling for an Article V convention related to the Citizens United decision. “So whether it’s balanced budgets, whether it’s term limits, I think the opportunity is ripe for us to get out there and just knock on those doors and hit it, and it has to be grassroots.”

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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