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Lawmakers advance bill that would convene a convention of states & limit power of federal government

Jonathan Thorne
Flickr via CC BY-NC 2.0

A bill that calls for a convention of states and for weakening the powers of the federal government passed the Senate and has been introduced in the House. The third reading in the House ended with a 17-13 vote. Lawmakers debated what the implications of a convention of states could have and what priorities should be included in any proposed amendments to the U.S. constitution. Several bills have been introduced in previous sessions and made various levels of progress, though none have passed both chambers of the legislature.

A constitutional amendment may be ratified in two ways. The first is when the U.S. Congress proposes an amendment(s) that must pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate by a two thirds majority. The amendment(s) are then sent to each state legislature to be voted on. If three fourths of the states approve of the amendment(s), it becomes part of the Constitution.

The second is when states petition Congress to convene state constitutional conventions, which are convened upon Congressional approval. Two thirds (34 if 50) of states must approve of such conventions. Conventions in three quarters of the states (38 of 50) must ratify the amendment(s).

To the present day, there have been only 27 amendments that have been added to the Constitution, though approximately 12,000 have been proposed since the nation’s founding.

Support for the bill focused on what federalism could look like in the future.

“[The] Federal government in my 41 years has grown and grown and that left me wondering what is there for my children and my children's children,” said Sen. Evie Brennan (R-Cheyenne). “About a year ago, I was sitting up in the House chambers watching a vote on [a] convention, on this resolution, because it was a good opportunity for me to show my daughter how government works. We've heard a lot of arguments for voting yes on this. It's a vote for our children and their children and their future.”

The bill alleges that a convention is necessary to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution for the purposes of restraining threats to liberty, reigning in federal spending, and protecting against other alleged abuses of power, among others.

“It's pretty much given that we're going to go till we hit the wall, [and] the only stop is going to be when the states stand up and fight for what they believe and what their people believe in,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower). “That's what this does. So, you can either do nothing and wait for the wreck or actually try to do something affirmatively to correct a wrong.”

There were concerns about the necessity of what a convention of states could do and what the implications for it might be for initiating a major constitutional action.

“It'd [a convention of states] be way too easy to get way out of control, and [the U.S.] Constitution’s worked for us about 200 going on 250 years here [and] just to say we're going to go in there and start send one person from each state, and we're going to start marking it up,” said Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson). “We mark up bills here all the time, then we're back the next year saying, ‘Oh, we didn't mean to do that.’ Well, the Constitution is a bigger deal than that.”

Despite voting against the bill, Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said it was a good debate to have and wasn’t necessarily against it.

“We've all got some gripes for the U.S. Constitution in some way or another that we want to fix the challenges [and] if you do that survey all across the country, you don't get the same list,” he said. “Our concerns about the U.S. Constitution tend to also be political. We raised some of them in this chamber, some of those paths here, they don't pass elsewhere. But the idea that there's unanimity in desire to change certain aspects of the U.S. Constitution underlies this belief that by simply calling out a five convention, reasonable people will assemble, they'll put together a list of constitutional amendments, and then everything will go well.”

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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