Virginia is one of the latest states involved in a new push for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution in a bid to rein in the federal government — part of a nascent campaign on an issue states have been grappling with since at least the 18th century.
National and state GOP leaders are supportive of the idea, saying that a convention of the states is needed to stop an out-of-control federal government, but some conservatives say such a gathering could end up as a free-for-all and risk radically altering the founding document.
Resolutions calling for a convention to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government and impose term limits on members of Congress recently advanced out of committees in Virginia’s House and Senate, along with separate resolutions calling specifically for a balanced budget amendment.
Michael Farris, a former GOP nominee for Virginia lieutenant governor, is helping spearhead the push for a convention of the states, a project of the group Citizens for Self-Governance.
The movement is nothing new, but Mr. Farris said he got the idea for a renewed effort after the 2012 election. He said it made sense legally and politically to start fresh rather than try to build on prior disparate efforts that have seen mixed results.
At least 34 states, or two-thirds, must pass applications for a convention and ultimately would need a sign-off from Congress.
Language for the convention call must be consistent, if not uniform, among the applications. But the state legislatures have created a hodgepodge of resolutions that have been approved and often rescinded — which could put Congress on murky legal ground when weighing the applications.
“The [balanced budget amendments] have been written in so many different ways,” Mr. Farris said.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows Congress to propose amendments, but it states that “on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, [Congress] shall call a convention for proposing amendments.”
Rather than calling for a specific amendment, this particular movement is calling for a convention of the states to reduce the power and scope of the federal government. The language in Virginia’s proposals specifically call for a convention to pass amendments “that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.”
The Republican-controlled House of Delegates voted down a similar resolution during last year’s session, and the fate of this year’s effort is still very much up in the air.
Three states — Alaska, Georgia and Florida — passed the group’s convention of states application last year, and lawmakers in a dozen states are considering them this year.
Virginia’s movement has received support from leading conservative voices like former Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II. Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich also recently visited a handful of states as part of a barnstorming effort to pass convention resolutions for a balanced budget amendment.
But the push also has run headlong into opposition among some conservative circles, with opponents warning that an open-ended convention of the states could give way to a free-for-all of competing interest groups.
“Imagine what harm a Constitutional Convention, packed with left-leaning delegates, could do to the Constitution?” state Sen. Richard H. Black, Loudoun Republican, wrote in a recent email to supporters. “If the left were able to amend the Constitution of the United States, they could change Freedom of Religion to say certain teachings from the Bible are hate speech, they could take away our right to own a gun, etc.”
Opponents also cite the example of the 1787 convention, which was called to amend and improve the Articles of Confederation but ended up scrapping them and sending to the states what is now the U.S. Constitution.
Others dismiss those fears, saying a convention can be limited and that states will have the opportunity to vote for or against anything that comes out of a convention.
By some counts, Michigan became the 34th state last year to call for a convention specifically for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some scholars, though, believe that states that have rescinded their applications, which applies to about a dozen of them, should not count toward the 34 necessary to call a convention.
It would be up to Congress to decide whether the states have crossed the threshold. It’s been nearly half a century since the proposal for the last successful constitutional amendment — the 26th, which granted 18-year-olds the right to vote. (The 27th Amendment was enshrined into the Constitution in 1992, but it was actually one of the original ones submitted to the states in 1789.)
It would take approval from three-quarters, or 38, of the states to amend the Constitution. It took nearly 203 years to ratify the 27th Amendment, which says any law that changes lawmakers’ salaries cannot take effect until the next session of Congress.
Congressional Republicans held a vote several years ago to send another version of a balanced budget to state legislatures, but it fell well short.