Opinion and Forefront

STYRING: Considering a weapon of last resort against the feds

June 14, 2014

Styring
Chances are you’d never heard of something called the “Mount Vernon Assembly” before reading this column.

Chances are you will never again hear of the MVA after you read this column.

But, there is also a slim chance the MVA will incite a political bonfire not seen since the Federalists and anti-Federalists hurled broadsides over whether to ratify the Constitution. (In which case, you can tell your grandchildren, “I remember first reading about that back in the day in the Business Journal…”).

The MVA is a group of sitting state legislators from over 30 states who first met in December 2013 at, of course, George Washington’s estate. One of the two ramrod organizers is Indiana State Senate leader David Long of Fort Wayne. They were to meet for the second time in Indianapolis June 12-13.

At stake is nothing less than whether the several states can rein in an overweening federal government; if so, how; and, do they have the will?

If you don’t think the feds need the emergency brake pulled, stop reading. If you think we have a Congress that has discovered the magic of spending unlimited amounts of borrowed money, a Supreme Court that reads the Commerce Clause and the 14th Amendment to allow federal tentacles in nearly anything, and a president who thinks he can do by executive order what little those other two branches still say he can’t do, the Mount Vernon Assembly offers you hope.

Debates about the role of the national government vis a vis the people and the states are as old as the republic. The Framers resolved it, or so they thought, by delegating certain powers to the United States and, through the Ninth and 10th amendments, reserving all others “to the states respectively or to the people.”

Along the way, they added an emergency brake via the Fifth Amendment. If the federal government ever ran amok, the states themselves could change our fundamental governing document (i.e. amend the Constitution) without the acquiescence of or, indeed, over the opposition of the national government.

Ultimate sovereignty lies with three-fourths of the state legislatures. Two-thirds of the states (34) may call a convention to propose constitutional amendments; three-fourths (38) of the legislatures may then ratify those amendments.

Washington, D.C., has nothing to say about it.

This amendment route is the thermonuclear weapon of constitutional governance and has never been tried. As such, the MVAers are still at the prudential stage of working out the mechanisms for how it would work, particularly making sure any convention wouldn’t be a runaway (repeal the whole Constitution and start over). But these mechanisms can doubtless be worked out.

What unites them is a feeling the pendulum has so far overswung—that the feds are steamrolling every aspect of our lives and reducing the states to administrative appendages of D.C.—that the weapon of last resort is becoming the option of only resort.

We’re not talking here about single-issue amendments on which opinion is deeply divided (abortion, gun control, even a balanced-budget amendment come to mind). If the MVA goes that route, no amendment would or should succeed or be a credible threat. What’s needed is a broad stroke re-establishing the proper role of the central government. Something even the Supreme Court can’t fail to notice. Something (which I am not competent to draft) that, in effect, says, “Hey, guys! That Xth Amendment means what it says.”

A heck of a lot of state legislators, from both parties, would vote for that. Let’s cheer on the Mount Vernon Assembly and hope our grandkids read about it in the history books.•

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Styring is an economist, a former Indiana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, and a former senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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