Last month, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) announced that he will retire at the end of 2014, cutting short his second Senate term by two years. His decision was in part the result of his health struggles related the recent recurrence of prostate cancer. But Sen. Coburn also cited the dysfunction in Washington D.C., and particularly in the U.S. Senate, in stating: “As a citizen, I am now convinced that I can best serve my own children and grandchildren by shifting my focus elsewhere.”
John Ward’s HuffPost interview with Sen. Coburn last week sheds some light on exactly how Sen. Coburn intends to shift his focus:
“It’s time for me to go do something else,” Coburn said. “I know me. I’ve made lots of shifts in my life, and I know when it’s time. My faith comes into that. I pay a lot of attention to what I think I’m supposed to be doing. … And it’s just time for me to do something else. So I’m getting ready to walk through whatever door opens.”
“I don’t have any set plans whatsoever,” he said.
There are two exceptions to that statement. He has plans to play golf, a game he loves and has rarely been able to enjoy during his time in Washington. And he is going to lend his support to a growing effort in state legislatures across the country to call a convention to amend the Constitution with the aim of limiting the size and reach of the federal government.
“I’m going to be involved with the Convention of States. I’m going to try to motivate so that that happens. I think that’s the only answer,” Coburn said. “I’m just going to go around and talk about why it’s needed, and try to convince state legislatures to do it.”
Sen. Coburn’s endorsement of and plans to actively support an Article V convention of the states to propose amendments adds further momentum to the movement that has been gaining steam since the second half of 2013. Fueled in large part by conservative talk radio host Mark Levin’s book The Liberty Amendments, which advocates for proposing a set of eleven constitutional amendments through the Article V convention process, the calls to revive the dormant constitutional provision continue to grow.
Sen. Coburn’s call for the Article V convention of the states appears to be grounded in the basic principle that it offers the only method to restore constitutional limits on the size and scope of the federal government without directly involving the federal government.
In other words, although Article V does require Congress to provide a minimal, ministerial role in administering the state convention, the process would generally bypass federal government entirely. This is a crucial point because it may be impossible to rely on the federal government to effectively circumscribe its own bloated sphere of influence through the traditional method of proposing amendments through Congress.
Article V provides as follows (emphasis added):
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress….
The first big step toward initiating this process came last December when nearly 100 state legislators from 32 states convened in Mt. Vernon to set the initial strategy for calling an Article V convention. And just last week, the Georgia Senate became the first legislative body to pass an application for the convention of the states. Thirty-four state legislatures must pass such an application to reach the requisite two-thirds threshold for holding an Article V convention of the states to propose amendments.
Several prominent figures in modern history have also advocated for a such a convention to no avail. In 1994, Ronald Reagan advocated use of the Article V convention to pass a balanced budget amendment as “the only strategy that will work.” Economist Milton Friedman stated that an Article V convention “is the one device that can effectively bypass the Washington bureaucracy.” More recently, Gov. Pence of Indiana and Gov. Jindal of Louisiana have publicly supported the process as offering the best hope to reign in the federal government and return to a balanced budget.
Yet past and future Article V convention hopefuls have always faced high hurdles. The fear of a “runaway” convention that would threaten our basic constitutional foundation established by the Framers is usually the primary concern commentators raise. In a recent piece for Outside the Beltway titled Just Say No to a Constitutional Convention that echoed his previous comments on the process, Doug Mataconis highlighted this concern, arguing that “this is a method of Amendment that has never been utilized before, and we really have no idea how such a proceeding would unfold, or whether it could be limited to consideration of specific Amendments.”
Others have argued that nullification is the appropriate remedy for a federal government that refuses to act within the limits of its constitutional authority. In a piece for the Washington Times titled Mark Levin is wrong: A lawless gov’t, not the Constitution, needs nullified, Michael Lotfi stated that “The risk for a runaway convention, by which our current Constitution could be completely shredded, is of paramount concern.” He further added that “It can now easily be concluded that nullification is a power reserved for the people of their respective states,” in positing nullification as the “rightful remedy” in comparison to the Article V method.
On the runaway convention issue, I agree with Sen. Coburn that the protections built into the Article V process do not permit a second Articles of Confederation era-type convention that could effectively replace our current constitutional structure. For one, the state legislatures can control the scope of their participation in the convention through their application bills and appointed commissioners to the convention.
Furthermore, even if two-thirds of the state commissioners were able to successfully propose a radical overhaul of the constitution, their proposals would be just that—a proposal. Three-quarters of the state legislatures (38) must still approve any of these proposed amendments. Twenty-seven state legislatures are currently Republican-controlled, seventeen are Democrat-controlled, and six are split. This hardly seems like a recipe for replacing our governing document with Mao’s little red book.
As for nullification, I do not believe that it is supported by the constitution, and I hope that it will not be generally discussed in relation to the Article V process. The constitution explicitly provides for a convention of the states. Nullification theories are deeply rooted in antebellum-era philosophies that have the potential to associate the unquestionably constitutional Article V provisions with a tragic context that few have an interest in revisiting.
Proponents of an Article V convention of states to propose constitutional amendments still have a long, hard road ahead of them. But thanks to Sen. Coburn’s plans to be politically active in this movement during his retirement, the distant light at the end of the tunnel may be nearer now than ever before.