Our Opinion: North Carolina should join states' convention call
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Three out of four people want congressional term limits, but the likelihood that lawmakers will vote to limit their own power is closer to one in a million.
When senators and representatives won’t carry out their constituents’ will, the Constitution gives voters a vehicle to circumvent Congress through their state legislatures. Article V allows a two-thirds majority of states to call a convention where constitutional amendments can be proposed. Three-quarters of the states must ratify an amendment before it can take effect.
Since 2017, advocates have asked North Carolina legislators to adopt a resolution calling for an Article V convention of the states. After substantial progress that year — a measure passed in the N.C. Senate but died in the House — and legislation that failed to gain traction in subsequent legislative sessions, the movement could finally achieve its goal in 2021.
Two bills filed this month, House Joint Resolution 172 and HJR 233, would add North Carolina to the list of 15 states with active convention calls. House Speaker Tim Moore signed on as a sponsor for both.
The resolutions differ in their scope. HJR 172 would authorize a convention for the sole purpose of proposing a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress. HJR 233 is more comprehensive and would allow North Carolina’s convention delegates to consider amendments that “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.”
Fiscal restraints could take the form of a balanced budget amendment, a perennial proposal that enjoys bipartisan support. Efforts to limit federal power could restore the federalism our founders intended by allowing state governments more leeway in setting policy. Examples may include expanding the right to keep and bear arms or shielding cannabis cultivators and dispensaries from federal penalties in states that have chosen to legalize marijuana.
HJR 233 would allow a convention of the states to consider term limits for any federal officials, not just members of Congress. Partisan support for Supreme Court justices’ lifetime appointments waxes and wanes with the high court’s ideological makeup, but judicial terms could certainly be reviewed. State judges are subject to mandatory retirement at age 72.
Under its charge to limit federal power, a convention could propose an amendment to preserve the court’s current nine-seat configuration, preventing Congress from considering a much-ballyhooed expansion to 11 or 13 members.
Currently, adding Supreme Court seats requires only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate and support from the White House. Constitutional amendments supersede federal statutes, so an amendment limiting the bench to nine justices would permanently close the door on court-packing.
Eighteen other states are considering convention resolutions this year, and successful passage in those states plus North Carolina would achieve the magic number of 34 states required to trigger the mechanism.
Opponents stoke fears of a “runaway convention” where the entire Constitution could be scrapped and a replacement invented from whole cloth, but that’s a disingenuous argument. Article V authorizes two-thirds of state legislatures to “call a convention for proposing amendments.” It’s right there in the plain text. The Constitution’s framers provided states with a tool for keeping Congress in check; they didn’t embed a self-destruct button in our founding document.
Neither can citizens reasonably expect a barrage of hastily drafted amendments that radically change our system of government overnight. Even if delegates were to “go rogue” and stray from the purpose of their states’ convention calls, the legality of which is questionable, any proposed amendment would still require at least 38 states’ approval.
The ratification process is identical regardless of an amendment’s origin — congressional passage or states’ convention. The Constitution is difficult to amend for good reason.
It’s encouraging to see Speaker Moore’s name on the resolution, but swift passage isn’t assured. North Carolinians who support a convention of the states should contact their state lawmakers and ask them to vote in favor of HJR 233 in committee and on the House and Senate floor.
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