The Commercial Appeal

How Tenn. could start constituti­onal crisis for US

Convention of states could radically alter government


NASHVILLE - The Tennessee state Senate passed a resolution last week calling for a convention of the states that some experts say has the potential to radically alter the American form of government.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, both filed legislatio­n calling for the gathering to draft an amendment to the Constituti­on requiring Congress to only pass balanced budgets.

The Senate resolution passed on Monday with a 27-3 vote.

The last time the states gathered to amend a governing document on the scale the resolution calls for, the delegates threw out America’s first basis of government and replaced it with the constituti­onal system used today.

“They were supposed to meet to make amendments to the Articles of Confederat­ion but ended up with a whole new form of government,” said Nathan Griffith, an associate professor of political science at Belmont University. “Not just a new constituti­on, but a whole new form of government.”

Griffith is referring to the 1787 Constituti­onal Convention in Philadelph­ia where delegates from the newly independen­t states gathered to propose amendments to the first system of government, the Articles of Confederat­ion. But instead replaced the whole system with a new organizati­on of federalism. This gathering is the basis for an Article V Convention.

Lawmakers and constituti­onal experts fear that a similar situation could arise if a convention of the states were called today.

No provisions formally exist for how to actually run a gathering. A planning convention, like the one Kelsey’s resolution calls for, can set the agenda and rules, but those rules could be thrown out at an actual convention by the delegates.

“You’re rolling the dice a little bit with this,” Griffith said.

There are two ways to propose amendments to the Constituti­on. The first and more traditiona­l method is through a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representa­tives and the Senate. Then the amendment is sent to the state legislatur­es, where it needs ratificati­on by three-fourths or 38 states in order to become law. Nearly all 27 amendments have followed this path.

But the Constituti­on also provides a second, more populist path to amending the document. If two-thirds, or 34 states, pass a resolution calling for a constituti­onal convention, delegates from all 50 states will meet to draft an amendment. This is what the Tennessee lawmakers are calling for in their resolution.

“It is time for states to step up and solve the problem with almost $20 trillion of national debt that has been amassed in Washington,” Kelsey said in a news release.

The resolution passed calls for a convention in Nashville to plan for an official Article V convention later this year. Kelsey claims that Tennessee has joined 27 other states in calling for a convention, but there is some legal gray area in the actual wording of resolution­s.

Constituti­onal scholar Robert G. Natelson, a retired University of Minnesota professor, said there is some discrepanc­ies with the language of some state resolution­s that could lead a court to question their claims.

“As a scholar, I say there are probably 26 outstandin­g that can be considered valid, there is room for argument, because the wording is slightly different,” he said. For example, last session the Tennessee House passed a resolution calling for a similar convention of states seeking to place fiscal and term-limit restraints on the federal government.

While the language was much broader than Kelsey’s narrow focus on a balanced budget amendment, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle raised similar objections to the dangers of gathering the states for a convention.

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