The Texas Senate, by a 20-11 vote, agreed Tuesday to a call for a Convention of States to consider amendments to the U.S. Constitution to rein in federal power and set federal term limits.
Senate Joint Resolution 2 was one of four emergency items called for by Gov. Greg Abbott in his State of the State address.
The Senate also agreed to impose a state jail penalty on a legislator who violates his or her oath as a delegate to a potential national Convention of States, a measure intended to allay concerns about a runaway convention that might seek to amend the Constitution in ways not intended by the Legislature.
Under Article V of the Constitution, two-thirds of the states can call for a Convention of States. So far, eight states have joined the call. Last week, the Utah Senate voted “no.”
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who guided the Texas measure, noted that even if a convention ran amok, any proposed amendment would still require the ratification of three-quarters of the states, meaning 13 states could block any change.
The call for a convention faces an uncertain future in the House, where it is not clear that it enjoys majority support on the Select Committee on State and Federal Power and Responsibility.
But in Tuesday’s Senate vote, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who in the past was an adamant foe of a convention that he considered a potentially dangerous idea and said last week that he had informed the governor he remained a skeptic with an open mind, voted with the Senate’s other Republicans in what was a party-line vote.
“For decades, the federal government has grown out of control, increasingly abandoning the Constitution while stiff-arming the states and ignoring its citizens,” said Abbott in a statement.
“This isn’t a problem caused by one president and it won’t be solved by one president – it must be fixed by the people themselves,” said Abbott, who devoted much of his book, “Broken but Unbowed,” to an argument for a convention that he believes is needed to restore the power of states in the federal system.
While the idea does have fervent supporters, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released last week found the public was mostly leery of tinkering with the Constitution, and that those doubts cross ideological lines.
SJR 2 would call for a Convention of States with limited objectives: “To impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government and to limit the terms of office of federal officials and members of Congress.”
The three hours of debate on SJR 2 and two related measures revealed the kinds of concerns that led state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to tell Birdwell early on, “My constituents are so torn and passionate on both sides. Calm my fears.”
The fear is that whatever the Texas Legislature mandates, once a Convention of States convenes, the only precedent would be the original Constitutional Convention, in which delegates far exceeded their mandate in what are now viewed as inspired ways.
To address the concern that delegates to a new convention might exceed their mandate with less salutary effect, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, offered the amendment to impose criminal penalties on a delegate who violates his or her oath. Birdwell strenuously objected to that, saying it would inappropriately criminalize legislative activity. Birdwell said he thought the most serious penalty the Legislature ought to be able to impose on a member is expulsion.
The Senate nonetheless, on a 19-11 vote, approved the Hughes amendment to SB 21, setting the rules and qualifications for delegates, who would be chosen from among the members of the Legislature
The Senate also approved SJR 38, a resolution by state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, to wipe the slate clean of all 14 previous calls by the Legislature for constitutional conventions going back to 1899, except for a 1977 call for a convention on a balanced budget — a call that has been approved by 28 states — which will remain on the books.
The Senate also agreed to an Estes amendment to SB 21 that would prohibit a legislator serving as a delegate to an Article V convention from receiving food, gifts or contributions from lobbyists. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said that would unfairly harm the re-election prospects of an affected legislator, but Estes replied that it might then be best for a legislator serving as a delegate not to seek re-election.
Taylor said he couldn’t imagine any corporate interests trying to influence a Convention of States. But Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who served for eight months on a state constitutional convention in 1974, warned that, based on that experience, members of a national convention would face unimaginable pressures.