RICHMOND — Conservative Republican legislators fed up with Washington are pushing a measure meant to rein in federal spending and power, but they face fierce opposition — from fellow conservatives.
Virginia Republicans, so often split along establishment and tea party lines, have seen a new fissure erupt over whether to join a national movement calling for the states to make an end run around Congress and amend the U.S. Constitution on their own.
Supporters are calling for a “convention of the states,” where delegations from across the country would consider passing amendments to require a balanced budget and to “restrain the abuse of power by the federal government.”
It’s the sort of suggestion that inspires eye-rolling from the state’s liberal legislators. But the most outspoken opposition has come from the legislators on the right who share the goals of balancing the federal budget and curbing federal power but fear a “runaway convention” that turns into a wholesale rewrite of the Constitution. Rights guaranteed since the founding of the nation could suddenly be on the table, opponents say.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” said Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), known widely as one of the most conservative members of the legislature who nonetheless opposes the idea of a convention. “We kind of think it would work out well. You put a bullet in one chamber, the odds of it working are pretty good. But the consequences of being wrong are immeasurable.”
Supporters say the amendments considered at such a convention would be restricted to certain topics. If the convention somehow went rogue — say, by voting to nix the Second Amendment — they note that states still have a final say in the ratification process.
This “is our ultimate ‘backstop,’” former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II (R) wrote on Facebook last weekend as he indicated that he is in favor of the convention resolution.
As if the notion of states taking the Constitution into their own hands was not novel enough, now comes the spectacle of two Virginia uber conservatives — Cuccinelli and Black — at odds. Black has other conservative stalwarts, including Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), on his side. But leading the national push for the convention is a one-time ally: Michael P. Farris, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1993, who is publicly considering a primary challenge to Black over the issue.
“I have never seen an issue that sees so many good conservatives on both sides,” Cuccinelli wrote.
Said Black: “It’s sort of a family food fight.”
Democrats were more blunt.
“Every nut job in America would be at that convention,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “It would not be any Jeffersons or Madisons.”
Virginians have one of their own, George Mason, to thank (or blame) for the amendment-by-convention option. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Mason warned that the day could come when the federal government grew so corrupt and oppressive that the states would need a way to fight back. The result was Article V of the U.S. Constitution, which empowers states to propose amendments by way of a convention of the states. Two-thirds of the states must agree to call the convention, and any amendments that were passed would then have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
The option has never been exercised, despite many attempts. Supporters say modern-day Washington has become oppressive enough for the idea to catch on.
The Virginia-based Citizens for Self-governance is making a national push for the Convention of States Project, calling for amendments to “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit its power and jurisdiction, and impose term limits on its officials and members of Congress.”
So far, three states — Alaska, Georgia and Florida — have passed resolutions calling for the convention. Seventeen others are considering legislation this year. It would take 34 states to call a convention. At the helm of the group is Farris, the founding president of Patrick Henry College and the Home School Legal Defense Association. Farris said he is so frustrated with Black’s opposition to the measure that he is considering a primary challenge this year.
“I can’t stand by and let my own senator defeat the one thing I think has any chance of stopping the abuse of power by the federal government,” Farris said.
Black, a former Marine combat pilot, said he is undaunted: “I laid out in the sun in Vietnam unconscious for loss of blood, and the idea that somehow I’m going to fear a primary? Give me a break.”
The House of Delegates and the Senate have multiple resolutions calling for conventions: some to pass a balanced-budget amendment, others to restrain “the abuse of power by the federal government.” As resolutions rather than bills, they would not need a signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). But the split within the Republican right has so far stalled action in the House of Delegates and Senate, both under GOP control. The measures have been passed over day after day on the floor, most recently on Tuesday.
Democrats, meanwhile, are opposed to the convention but not above dreaming about bending the Constitution their way.
“I’m against it, but if we have one, I want to be a delegate,” said Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax). “There’s a lot of problems with this Constitution. I’ll just get up to this convention and start whacking away.”