July 20, 2018

State Lawmakers on the National Stage

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The primary campaigns for state senator and state representative are in full swing, at least in the districts encompassing Stephenville.  Hotly debated are such questions as who’s more anti-abortion, who’s more anti-gun control, who’s more pro-property tax relief, etc., etc., etc.  But one set of issues may merit more discussion than it’s received to date:  What do are candidates for election or re-election think of amending the United States Constitution?

The authors of the Constitution intended the state legislatures to play important roles in amending the Constitution.  The most commonly used method requires the Congress to pass a proposed amendment by a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and submit it to the state legislatures for approval.  If approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures, it then becomes part of the Constitution.  Twenty-six of the Constitution’s twenty-seven amendments were added this way (the sole exception is the Twenty-First Amendment, repealing Prohibition, which was passed by Congress and submitted to state constitutional conventions for fear that anti-Prohibition forces could block its passage in state legislatures).

But what if Congress refuses to pass or even consider an amendment widely demanded by the states?  In that instance, the state legislatures themselves could begin the amendment process.  The Constitution says that if two-thirds of the state legislatures so demand, the Congress must call a new constitutional convention to propose amendments which would become part of the Constitution if approved by three-fourths of the states, whether acting through state conventions or state legislatures.

Examples of amendments supported by activists but disliked by Congress are proposals to require Congress to balance the federal budget.  Although the constitutions of forty-nine states require balanced budgets, the national Constitution imposes no such requirement.  In fact, nowhere does it even mention budgets, balanced or otherwise, leaving Congress the freedom to tax and spend at any level it chooses.  However irresponsible the fiscal policies of Congress and presidents, which have led to a national debt in excess of twenty trillion dollars and climbing, the policies have not violated the Constitution as written.  And Congress does not want to amend the Constitution to require balanced budgets because to do so would limit its own tax and spending powers.

Other examples are proposals to limit the number of terms senators and representatives may serve in office.  The Constitution currently imposes no term limits, and some members of Congress have therefore been able to serve more than fifty years in office.  Naturally, most members don’t want term limits because such limits, like balanced budget requirements, would limit their power.  And a case can be made against term limits:  To limit the number of terms a senator or representative may serve is to limit the right of the voters to elect whom they want to serve.  But such an amendment would also limit the opportunity of members of Congress to manipulate the electoral system for their own advantage as well.  Additional examples of proposed constitutional amendments unpopular in Congress but supported by Texas political leaders, as well as Governor Greg Abbot’s efforts to convene a new constitutional convention, can be found here:  https://www.texastribune.org/2016/01/08/abbott-calls-states-amend-us-constitution/.

Amendments to the United States Constitution have had a profound impact on the powers of the national and state governments and on the rights of “We, the People.”  Amendments have created the Bill of Rights, expanded the right to vote, increased the power of the national government to collect taxes and spend revenues, limited the terms the President of the United States can serve, and created new ways and means to fill—or create—vacancies in the offices of president and vice president.  Given the power of constitutional amendments to shape the government and the political system, as well as the power of state legislatures to propose and ratify national constitutional amendments, we should know more about what are state lawmakers and legislative candidates think about amending the United States Constitution:  What would they support?  What would they oppose?  How would they use their power to circumvent the Congress and shape the evolution of our national government and political system?


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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