Saint Louis, Mo. — State senator Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, wants to amend the United States Constitution.
Well, sort of.
Holsman was just elected co-president of the Assembly of State Legislatures. Missouri is one of 31 states that send delegates to the bi-annual meetings of the ASL. The organization’s primary purpose is to establish the framework for an “Article V Convention,” which, under the U.S. Constitution, would be empowered to propose and ratify amendments to the nation’s founding document.
Amending the Constitution is notoriously difficult. It hasn’t been done since 1992, when congressional pay limitations were finally ratified into the document a whopping 202 years after Congress first offered the measure to the states for consideration. Prior to that, the Constitution hadn’t been amended since 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18.
But under Article 5 of the Constitution, states may call their own convention to propose amendments and, with approval from ¾ of the states, ratify new amendments to the Constitution without making Congress lift a finger.
Article V reads, in full (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; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”
Holsman and the ASL have an optimistic goal: to successfully force Congress to “call” an Article V convention and to establish rules and regulations for the sending of delegates and the function of such a convention. ASL is a bi-partisan organization that Holsman said has sometimes vexingly been accused of possessing a secret agenda.
“When I first got engaged [with the ASL] I saw very quickly that the leadership of the executive committee got it,” Holsman said. “They knew getting to 38 requires bipartisan effort and there is no other substitute for working together. They can’t do it alone, and we can’t do it alone.”
The ASL and the movement to amend the constitution in general has gained renewed steam in recent years. From conservatives there has been a steady call for a “balanced budget amendment” while liberal camps around the country are seeking a constitutional amendment to overturn the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision and institute aggressive campaign finance reform.
The separate camps are almost entirely working “with their backs to each other,” Holsman said. But ASL — which is composed entirely of currently serving state lawmakers and has shared leadership positions for both parties — has no agenda other than to successfully initiate an Article V convention.
“That’s why our numbers have grown in the last year,” Holsman said. “As more legislators recognize it is not going to rewrite the constitution but could provide forum for significant and subtle changes that could lead to more transparency and control on the federal government.”
New York and Illinois both recently sent their first delegates, adding weight and Democrats to an organization currently more heavily dominated by Republicans. Of course, Republicans control 31 state legislatures. The ASL permits states to send 6 delegates, 3 from each legislative chamber on a 2-1 majority/minority basis. Holsman is currently the only Missouri Democrat serving on the ASL delegation. State Senators Ed Emery and Wayne Wallingford, serve with Holsman in the ASL as well. The House has not formally selected all three of its delegates. Rep. Mike Moon, a Republican, is the only House member in the ASL.
The group is turning its focus to creating templates for individual states to submit their own joint resolutions to Congress formally requesting a “call” for an Article V convention. But more challenging is crafting a template for state’s to designate their delegates to such a conference. If it is decided that delegates to an Article V convention must be elected to the post, no serving federally elected officials will be able to attend. That decision is largely left to the FEC, a decision that is expected to come very, very soon.
Holsman says the American citizens can’t rely on Congress to amend the constitution with respect to the budget or campaign finance because those are areas where Congress does not want to restrict itself. Whether it’s Congressmen who don’t want to see a balanced budget forcing spending cuts to their districts or federally elected officials who are so rarely keen to restrict how much money donors can give their campaigns, Holsman believes the fastest way to get to a convention is through the states.
With Congress prone to punting their duty to recognize state’s demands for a call, the FEC set to rule on whether or not to accept a petition designating delegates as federally elected officials and knocking the wind from the ASL’s current work with the states, and the historically entrenched political rivalries that would be required to temporarily unite, some regard any real hope for a convention as mere fantasy. Holsman calls participation in ASL an easy choice.
“It’s low risk, high reward,” Holsman said. “The only thing I risk is my time. If I put time and energy into this and nothing comes from it, then we retain the status quo. But if I put time and energy into this and something comes of it, then that would be a significant legacy for good government.”
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.