South Carolina pushes for state and federal constitutional conventions

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Lawmakers from South Carolina want to call for two unrelated constitutional conventions: one at the state level and one at the federal level.

South Carolina may soon join several other states calling for a revised Constitution that would limit federal spending. Simultaneously, state lawmakers are pushing for a state constitutional convention to give the governor more power.

The federal convention

On Thursday, a South Carolina Senate panel approved a bill calling for a federal constitutional convention. The bill, which was introduced in March 2017, will go through the Senate Judiciary Committee before it is debated on the Senate floor.

Republican state Sen. Rex Rice, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The State that he supports the proposal.

“[The bill] says $17 trillion in debt,” Rice said, referring to the national debt. “Now it’s more than $20 trillion.”

Other South Carolina Republicans, such as former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, are also proponents of the bill. DeMint rose to national prominence as a leading figure of the Tea Party and left the Senate in 2013. He’s now encouraging legislators to vote for a constitutional convention.

This might be the closest the nation has come to changing the Constitution since 1787.

Since June 2017, DeMint has been working with the Convention of States Project. The group’s mission is convincing states to call for a convention in order to write a constitutional amendment that compels the government to pass a balanced budget, creates term limits for federal judges and members of Congress, and reduces the federal government’s “power and jurisdiction.”

Under Article V of the Constitution, constitutional conventions can be called by two-thirds of both the U.S. House and Senate or two-thirds of state legislatures — 34 states in total. Once a convention is called, any amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of Congress or three-fourths of state legislatures — which comes to 38 states.

While it may seem unlikely for a slow-moving, often polarized and gridlocked Congress to come to a two-thirds consensus, state legislatures may provide an easier path through which to call for a convention.

DeMint and the Convention of States Project may be close to reaching their goal. 28 states have already passed resolutions calling for a constitutional convention.

The Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, another group seeking a convention, plans to target eight states to pass similar bills in 2018. Six of those, including South Carolina, have both legislative houses controlled by Republicans. Only one, Washington, has both houses under Democratic control.

While there have been similar pushes to amend the Constitution to mandate a balanced national budget, this might be the closest the nation has come to changing the Constitution since 1787.

Opponents fear that while Republicans control nearly every aspect of the federal and local governments, a constitutional convention may allow them to pass right-wing policies such as expanding religious rights, cutting the social safety net, and curtailing reproductive rights.

The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns that requiring the federal government to pass a balanced budget may actually destabilize a precarious economy. Their report found that in a bad economic year, the federal government could be forced to remove much of the foundation of a strong economy in order to pass a budget.

The group predicts that significant budget reapportionment in a slight recession would prevent the economy from bouncing back, increasing the duration and severity of economic recessions. This would increase unemployment, lower state’s tax revenues, and devastate domestic industries.

The state convention

In a similar but unrelated move, 25 South Carolina legislators are seeking a convention to revise the state’s constitution. The effort is led by state Reps. William Cogswell, Jason Elliott, and Micah Caskey, who say they want to give more authority to the executive branch to circumnavigate a Legislature mired by gridlock.

These lawmakers believe that the legislative branch has too much power, allowing a small group of powerful legislators to dictate what happens in the state. They point to uneven development in rural areas and substandard school districts as evidence of a select few prioritizing their districts over others.

“When you really ask the question: ‘What is the root problem here?’ It’s that the structure is not designed for accountability,” Caskey told the Post and Courier. “The incremental approach we’ve taken to reforms has failed.”

Initially, the proposal had bipartisan backing, with seven first-term Democrats expressing support. But hours after the bill was introduced, Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford urged Democrats to abandon it. Rutherford said the effort was “subterfuge” that would allow the enactment Republican policies.

“The constitution of the state and the federal constitution have been in place for centuries and for good reason,” Rutherford told the Post and Courier. “We can modify those documents, we can change state law to deal with them. But in terms of giving more power to the executive branch, we’ve tried that, and there’s no reason to change the constitution to do it.”

A state constitutional convention can only be called by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature, which must then put a referendum on the ballot for a public vote. If the convention is approved by the public, lawmakers set ground rules and then begin debates.

While Rutherford has expressed a fear of policies introduced by Republicans, the format of the convention would also allow Democrats to propose constitutional amendments.

Kimpson did not say whether reparations should take the form of specific transfers of wealth, broader institutional changes, or both.

Democratic state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said that if South Carolina was considering adding amendments to its Constitution, he would advocate for an amendment for reparations to descendants of former slaves.

“If the door is opened for a constitutional convention, last amended in 1895 to systematically disenfranchise African-Americans, I plan to introduce the subject of reparations for the descendants of slaves who built this state providing free labor,” Kimpson wrote on Twitter Monday.

Kimpson did not say whether reparations should take the form of specific transfers of wealth, broader institutional changes, or both. He cited South Carolina’s constitutional history as part of the reason he supports a convention.

The South Carolina Constitution was last changed in 1895, after white supremacist U.S. Sen. Benjamin Tillman convinced the state Legislature to place a referendum on the ballot. Tillman wanted to shift political power away from the governorship and towards the Legislature to prevent the possibility of an African-American governor having power in South Carolina.