The West Virginia Senate voted along party lines Tuesday to request an Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution, an event that has never happened since the Constitution was adopted in 1787 and that critics fear could leave the Constitution vulnerable to wholesale changes.
The resolution passed by the Senate (SCR 10) calls for a convention to limit the power of the federal government, to limit federal spending and for term limits on members of Congress.
West Virginia would be the sixth state to call for such a convention, according to Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, one of the resolution's sponsors.
It would take requests from 34 states to convene an Article V convention — named after the article of the Constitution that describes the process — and it would take 38 states to approve any changes to the Constitution.
The Senate voted 18-14 to call for the convention, with every Republican voting in favor and every Democrat opposed. Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, and Sen. Jack Yost, D-Brooke, were absent. The Senate passed a similar measure last year, but it died in the House.
Democrats argued that the framers of the Constitution included the option to call a constitutional convention only for the most extreme circumstances — tyranny and dictatorship — and that there is no way to limit the changes a convention could make.
“It's the atomic bomb in the Constitution,” said Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “Why? Because it opens up everything in the Constitution.”
Republicans said citizens should call for a convention because federal spending and the size of government are out of control.
“The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom and brilliance, inserted this language so that the states would have an alternative,” said Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio. “They knew Congress would be unwilling or unable to limit their own power.”
The Constitution has been amended 27 times, but never through a convention.
“This method has never been tried, and for good reason,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. “We don't know where it will go, because it has no constraints.”
Legal experts from across the political spectrum have expressed concern that a convention could set its own agenda and write its own rules.
“I certainly would not want a constitutional convention,” late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said in 2014. “Whoa, who knows what would come of it.”
Republicans pointed to the fact that any changes would require the approval of 38 states to be ratified, calling that a sufficient check on the convention.
However, since a convention could write its own rules, it's possible that it also could alter the process by which changes are ratified. The first convention, which adopted the Constitution in 1787, created an entirely new ratification process from the one under which it was established.
“It would be unwise to assume that ratification of the convention's proposals would necessarily require the approval of 38 states, as the Constitution currently specifies,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, wrote in a 2014 report.
Trump argued that the framers of the Constitution gave the states the ability to change it for a reason, calling it “the final recourse when Congress will not act.”
“The greater threat to our liberty is inaction,” Trump said. “I do not fear the exercise of the authority expressly given to the people to control the federal government.”