Research & Commentary: Resolution in Utah Advances Constitutional Reform Efforts

Published February 16, 2017

The United States currently holds over $19 trillion in total public debt, and the figure is expected to rise for the foreseeable future. As the government has failed to address the mounting debt crisis, groups have been encouraging state legislators to use Article V of the U.S. Constitution to advance constitutional amendments. Per the language expressed in Article V, two-thirds of states legislatures, currently 34, must approve and submit applications to Congress before a convention of the states can be called. At that time, states, without Congress, can pass amendments to the Constitution, which would then need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states, 38.

A current resolution, introduced in Utah by state Rep. Merrill F. Nelson (R-Grantsville), aims to use Article V to propose amendments that will “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 … Congress.” The resolution is supported by the Convention of States, a constitutional reform movement established by the organization Citizens for Self-Governance with “the purpose of stopping the runaway power of the federal government.” Similar resolutions have passed in eight states.

In 2015, the Beehive State passed a resolution applying for an Article V convention that calls for a single-item balanced budget amendment. Currently, Utah is one of 28 states with applications calling for a convention. As of 2017, there are balanced budget resolutions pending in five state legislatures.

Nelson’s resolution differs from the resolutions passed in 28 states, however, as it offers more proposed amendments to be discussed during a future Article V convention. Not only would Nelson’s resolution set forth fiscal requirements to balance the budget of the federal government, the legislation would impose term limits on members of Congress and mandate the reduction of federal regulations.

Opponents of the Article V convention movement, such as the John Birch Society and Eagle Forum, have long argued any attempt to introduce an Article V convention could lead to a “runaway convention” in which an unlimited number of amendments could be passed, resulting in even worse policies than we have now. Numerous experts, including notable constitutional law scholar Rob Natelson, have provided substantial evidence that suggests the contrary is true. Further research on the history of Article V process and congressional inaction indicates “that an Article V convention can be limited to a particular topic or set of topics.”

In order to make certain a runaway convention does not occur, states have included certain provisions within the language of their Article V resolutions, such as provisions governing the selection of delegates or commissioners and the imposition of “civil or criminal penalties on commissioners who clearly abuse their trust.”

In September 2016, Convention of States hosted a simulation in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, with 137 delegates representing every state. The simulated convention passed amendment proposals relating to public debt, term limits for members of Congress, and limiting federal powers. Convention of States Project co-founder Michael Farris called the simulation “a turning point in history. The spirit of liberty and self government has been reignited.”

As elected officials representing the interests of the American people, it is paramount that state legislators take notice to the ever-increasing debt of the federal government. Utah lawmakers should consider the costs to people of the Beehive State that are associated with Washington’s out-of-control spending and utilize constitutionally backed reform efforts to rein in the flagrant actions of the federal government.

The following articles provide additional information on constitutional reform.

Article V Quick Reference Guide
Kyle Maichle, The Heartland Institute’s project manager for constitutional reform, authored the Article V Quick Reference Guide to provide important information about the constitutional reform movement and process to advocates, legislators, and policy experts. This guide describes how the Article V convention process works. As Maichle explains, the process consists of state legislatures enacting applications; Congress receiving the applications; and states agreeing to convention logistics, setting out voting rules, and ratifying an amendment that has been agreed to by the states. It also provides reasons for calling a convention and rebuts some of the most commonly used falsehoods made by opponents.

Research & Commentary: A Primer on the Constitutional Reform Movement–commentary-a-primer-on-the-constitutional-reform-movement
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland government relations coordinator Lindsey Stroud examines two constitutional reform groups, the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force and the Convention of States. Both groups have been active in the passage of state applications calling for an Article V convention for the purpose of proposing amendments to the United States Constitution. Stroud examines their history and current efforts among both groups.

Amending the Constitution by Convention: Practical Guidance for Citizens and Policymakers
This is the third study in a series of three Policy Studies by Independence Institute Senior Fellow Robert Natelson on the topic of amending the Constitution of the United States through an Article V convention. In this study, the author provides guidance to citizens and legislators on how to properly implement the process of calling an Article V convention. The text is meant be general in nature and not to be substituted for legal advice.

The Article V Movement: A Comprehensive Assessment to Date and Suggested Approach for State Legislators and Advocacy Groups Moving Forward
This Heartland Policy Brief is a comprehensive overview of the most consequential social movement occurring in the United States today: the Article V movement. As attorney David Guldenschuh notes, “The desire for power and the influence of special-interest money has so utterly corrupted Washington, DC that citizens no longer feel their leaders and representatives are looking out for the nation’s best interests.” Guldenschuh explains the nation’s Founding Fathers recognized the national government might someday overreach its constitutional authority, which is why they included Article V in the U.S. Constitution. Article V provides a mechanism for states to propose constitutional amendments that can rein in the national government. Guldenschuh describes four Article V advocacy groups—the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, Convention of States Project, Wolf-PAC, and Compact for America—and he reports on educational efforts undertaken by those organizations and others.

Heartland Daily Podcast – Rob Natelson: Article V Constitutional Convention
In this edition of the Heartland Daily Podcast, H. Sterling Burnett, managing editor of Environment & Climate News,speaks with Robert Natelson, a senior fellow at the Independence Institute and former constitutional law professor at three different universities. Natelson and Burnett discuss the history and the practicality of an Article V constitutional convention. Natelson is one of the foremost scholars of the constitutional amendment process in general and Article V conventions of the states in particular. Natelson provides a historical analysis of what an Article V convention is, why it was included in the Constitution, how it functions, and previous and current attempts to implement the process.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit the Center for Constitutional Reform, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Nathan Makla, Heartland’s state government relations manager, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.