Lawmakers gather in Indianapolis for constitutional talk

More than 100 state legislators from 33 states will meet this week at the Indiana Statehouse to discuss the procedures and rules for a possible convention to amend the U.S. Constitution.

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, spearheaded the event—called the Mount Vernon Assembly—saying he is concerned about “massive deficits that are threatening you, my kids and grandkids.”

“No generation has dumped this kind of debt on the next generation, and it is really becoming unsustainable,” he said.

But Long said discussion about any specific constitutional amendment is “premature.” No amendments will be proposedat the Thursday and Friday event. Instead, the meeting will focus on the procedures needed to hold an amendment convention in the future.

However, Indiana University law professor David Orentlicher—a former Indiana lawmaker—said he thinks an eventual constitutional convention is unlikely.

“I think the problem they’re facing is partisan divisions on the issues. The more (legislators) spell out partisan issues, the more they’re going to create divisions,” Orentlicher said. “I think this is a several-year process, but I think it’s important to have a national debate.”

Each state is allowed three delegates—one appointed by the majority leaders of each state’s House of Representatives, one by the leader of each state’s Senate, and one by the minority party.

Rep. Ben Smaltz R-Auburn; Sen. Jim Arnold, D-Michigan City; and Long will be representing the Hoosier state.

The event is a preliminary meeting for a possible convention to propose amendments as authorized by Article V of the U.S. Constitution. Long said the assembly is “very important” because the issues will remain in the control of the states and not the federal government and congress.

“We are working very hard to put together a structure and a set of rules,” Long said. “It’s a meeting to set up the rules and construction—how many votes per state, how many delegates, how you establish what will be considered.”

Long said there will most likely be another meeting to finalize the rules in December, but the exact date and place has not yet been disclosed.

There are two ways to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Congress can propose an amendment with a two-thirds majority vote of the House and Senate, or two-thirds of the states—which is 34—can call a convention to propose amendments.

Smaltz said the state-initiated amendment process “is the only mechanism, besides voting, for the states to be the rudder of our country and redirect the U.S. to a more positive direction.

In both scenarios, three-fourths, or 38 states, must ratify the amendment for it to be added to the U.S. Constitution.

“To get 38 states, then you really need something that can be bipartisan,” Orentlicher said. “The Constitution is very hard to amend. It’s not done very often.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, all 27 current amendments have been passed through the congressional process.

That means the second process—the one more than 100 legislators are meeting to discuss this week—has never been successful.

The last assembly was in the 1980s and focused on the same issues delegates will likely discuss if there is a convention—amending the constitution to require the federal government to propose a balanced budget.

“I think the problem is that the federal government is not required to balance its budgets and the states are. The federal government can just print money and has gotten into that habit,” Long said. Congress has “a culture of unaccountability that does not exist in the states.”

In the 1980s, the balanced budget campaign failed to meet requirements, falling short by just two states, and the convention option faded and has remained unused for about 30 years. Typically, the assemblies were held to rally and prod congress to propose an amendment.

“One of the most important things is that we have no contemporary best practice,” Smaltz said. “We have to look into historical best practices and look at how the constitution was created.”

Long said it’s possible that congress could propose an amendment after the Mount Vernon Assembly, but he does not think it’s likely.

“That has happened in the past, but I don’t think Washington today is the Washington it was in the past,” Long said. “I think it would be very difficult to see any change in Washington. The system is very broken.”

Orentlicher said he thinks Washington is dysfunctional but still motivated by the people’s interests.

“Ultimately, members of congress want to get re-elected, and if they get their constituents to send a strong message, they will respond,” Orenthlicher said. “When the public sends a consistent message, congress will response.”

Also, if there is going to be an amendment passed, he said, “I think (congress) would rather do it themselves.”

Critics of constitutional conventions say they worry that they are open-ended and could allow for the consideration of any amendment on any issue.

“It amazes me those that want a convention assume it would come out the way they expect it to,” said Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

Orentlicher said he thinks people will be reluctant to support the convention if the agenda is open-ended. Still, he said he thinks “it’s good that they’re talking about constitution reform.”

Long said the discussion this weekend will eliminate fears that the possible convention will be a “runaway.” He said delegates will set rules to establish what will be considered.

But Pelath said “it doesn’t merely mean it will get done the way they envision it will get done.”

“It will lead to nothing,” Pelath said. “It’s a carnival show.”

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