Push for constitutional convention not quite dead

An effort to rein in federal spending by amending the Constitution suffered a setback Thursday when North Carolina refused to join the push for a convention of states to propose such amendments.

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Matthew Burns
RALEIGH, N.C. — An effort to rein in federal spending by amending the Constitution suffered a temporary setback Thursday when North Carolina initially refused to join the push for a convention of states to propose such amendments.

Under Article V of the Constitution, states can call a convention to propose amendments as long as two-thirds of the states agree to do so. No such convention has ever been held since the Constitution was ratified in 1788.

The state Senate passed a resolution in April to make North Carolina the 13th state calling for a constitutional convention. After an hour of debate Thursday afternoon that included historical references to the Founding Fathers, dystopian visions of a nation drowning in red ink and a comparison of the Constitution to a microwave, the House voted the idea down 53-59.

About six hours later, however, the House voted 66-45 to reconsider the bill, and it was immediately shunted off to the House Rules Committee, where it could resurface at some later date during the biennium.

Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, implored his colleagues to support the resolution, saying the growth in federal spending has saddled the U.S. with $20 trillion in debt, and the growing deficit will eventually crush the nation.

"Washington will not fix the problem because Washington is the problem," Jones said. "By failing to act, we become part of the problem. We're aiding and abetting the process by digging our nation into a deeper and deeper black hole of debt."

But Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, warned that a convention could lead to unintended consequences. The delegates will be able to set their own agenda and could devise amendments no one has envisioned, he said.

"One amendment could fundamentally alter your rights," Speciale said. "The question is not that we have a problem, but is the Constitution the problem and we need to open it up for a rewrite?"

Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, agreed with Speciale, saying she worries extremists on the left or the right could hijack a convention in the current "political incendiary environment" and propose radical changes to the Constitution. A convention should be held only when all other avenues to change government behaviors have been exhausted.

"We're not at the point of last resort in this country," Butler said.

Others said federal government is too far gone and needs to be brought to heel, and a convention of the states would do that.

"Are they going to self-regulate? They've yet to do that," said Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance. "We have a drug-addled child in the federal government."

"I don't know if a convention will work or not, but I don't see any other option on the table," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford. "The country is not going to make it at the present rate."

Even House Speaker Tim Moore made a rare trip down from the dais to debate the resolution, saying he initially thought a constitutional convention was "a crazy idea" but has since come to support it.

"Washington has been broken," said Moore, R-Cleveland. "There are some systemic problems there."

Jones rebutted concerns that the convention would veer off course, saying it would be limited in scope and that it could only propose amendments. It would be up to the states to decide which, if any, to ratify, he said.

Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, said no one can put limits on the convention's actions because the delegates are sovereign and don't report back to their individual states.

"This is like changing a sinful society by rewriting the Ten Commandments," Jordan said.

"We keep hearing 'trust the process,'" added Rep. Chaz Beasley, D-Mecklenburg. "If we don't know what the process is, how can we trust it?"

Speciale was furious that a reconsideration motion was made Thursday night, saying the House should "do the honorable thing and let the bill lie where it lies."

"We do not need to be fighting this bill again in the next short session," Jordan agreed.

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