Politics & Government

How SC lawmakers literally could change the Constitution

Some S.C. lawmakers could see this happening in 2017
Some S.C. lawmakers could see this happening in 2017

South Carolina could have the decisive vote in an effort to do something the United States hasn’t done in 230 years: call a constitutional convention.

Two complementary bills, now sitting in S.C. House and Senate committees, call for a new constitutional convention to write at least one new amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And, depending on how you count, the S.C. proposals could help push the multi-state effort over the finish line.

By one count, 29 state legislatures already have called for a new convention to propose a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Wyoming was the most recent state to call for a convention, doing so on Feb. 24. The Equality State was the 29th state to do so, according to a count by the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, an advocacy group pushing for a convention.

The task force’s website lists 10 other states as targets for the final push, including South Carolina.

S.C. supporters say their proposal is one of several pushes for a “convention of states.” But their proposal would go further than mandating a balanced federal budget. It also would impose term limits on members of Congress and limit the federal government’s “power and jurisdiction.”

“This one has more grassroots support,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who is sponsoring the Senate bill.

Dating all the way back to the Bill of Rights, 27 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed by the U.S. Congress and added to the nation’s founding document after they were approved by three-quarters of the states.

But that is only one of two ways of proposing amendments spelled out in the Constitution’s Article V.

The second option bypasses Congress by creating what proponents call an Article V convention, a gathering that can propose its own amendments when called for by two-thirds of the states – or 34, with the current lineup of the Union.

There’s no telling what they could do with a lesser cast of characters.

John Crangle, comparing modern delegates to a constitutional convention to the Founding Fathers who drafted the U.S. Constitution

If the call for a constitutional convention succeeds, it would the first of its kind in modern U.S. history.

But convention supporters worry the math ultimately won’t work out in the amendment’s favor.

“There’s a tremendous concern that, because different states passed it (a call for a convention) in different forms, it won’t aggregate to 34,” said Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, the main sponsor of the resolution in the House. “At the end of the day, Congress can say, ‘They don’t all say the same thing.’ ”

The “convention of states” language that Taylor supports has been adopted in the same format in nine other states.

The only precedent for such a convention would be the Philadelphia convention of 1787, which proposed the current U.S. Constitution, with its familiar three branches of government, checks and balances, and division between state and federal powers.

But that precedent also illustrates why critics worry about what a new convention would produce.

Even if the states’ instructions limit a convention to approving a balanced budget amendment, there is no telling what convention delegates might propose once they assemble. Even the Founders of 1787 only were supposed to propose changes to the original Articles of Confederation.

“If you call a convention, it can get out of control,” said John Crangle with the liberal S.C. Progressive Network. “You can say, ‘We want just a balanced-budget amendment,’ but it’s not restricted to that.

“You look at the Philadelphia convention, and there’s no telling what they could do with a lesser cast of characters.”

Ashley Landess, president of the conservative S.C. Policy Council think tank, also is skeptical of a convention on any topic leading to a “quick fix” for the country’s problems.

If any 13 states out of 50 say, ‘No,’ it won’t pass.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley

“It’s easy for state legislators or a governor to call on Washington to do something,” Landess said. “But this is actually dangerous because no one knows what will happen.”

Supporters counter that whatever a constitutional convention might propose, it would not have the final say.

“Thirty-eight states have to ratify” anything that a convention proposes, Grooms said. “If any 13 states out of 50 say, ‘No,’ it won’t pass.”

Taylor notes the S.C. resolution even stipulates that if the General Assembly is unhappy with how its convention delegates are handling themselves, it “may recall its delegates at any time.”

“It’s ludicrous,” Taylor said of concerns that delegates fundamentally could re-write the Constitution. “Common sense tells you the states are going to be conservative.”

Supporters say the proposal could get broad support in the Legislature if it came up for a vote, but the legislative calendar could make that difficult.

As recently as 2015, nine S.C. legislators signed onto a bill calling for a constitutional convention. That proposal received a favorable report from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but an unfavorable minority report effectively killed the measure, preventing it from being brought to a vote before the end of the session.

Even supporters dubious the S.C. proposals will get a vote this year.

“We’re too deeply immersed in other things,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a co-sponsor of the Senate version. “With the roads legislation out there, the retirement piece ... I doubt it’s going to come up (for a vote) this year.”

That could leave those hoping for a change to the nation’s founding document waiting for at least another year.

Changing the Constitution

29 States have approved calls for a constitutional convention to propose an amendment requiring the federal government to balance its budget

34 States – two-thirds of the total – have to call for a constitutional convention before one can be called; supporters hope South Carolina will join that number

38 States – or three-quarters – afterward would have to approve any new amendment proposed by a convention before it would go into effect