After concluding Washington is incapable of solving some of America’s biggest problems over his 16 years in Congress, former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says a constitutionally provided convention of the states is the only realistic remedy to what ails us.
Article V of the Constitution allows for amendments through a convention of two-thirds of the states proposing changes that would then need to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Currently, 34 states would need to get on board to force Congress to call a convention and 38 states would need to approve any proposed amendments.
“Before our constitutional convention, everything was decided through a convention like this,” said Coburn, who points out George Mason insisted on the inclusion of the convention of the states option after pointing out no government in history has ever given back power to the people.
Coburn further explained the process.
“You have to an application that aggregates (among the states). You have to have the same application everywhere. You can’t have one application for a balanced budget and one application for something else. You have to have 34 that say the same thing,” said Coburn.
The current push for a convention of the states calls for three amendments: one to balance the budget, one to rein in the reach of the federal government , and one to limit the length of terms in the House and Senate.
Coburn says a balanced budget amendment is desperately needed.
“We think the federal government ought to be fiscally responsible. They ought to have to live under the same accounting guidelines everybody else does and they ought to have to live within their means,” said Coburn. “That’s a balanced budget amendment but it also means you can’t just go and add mandates to the states to balance the budget. You have to make hard choices.”
Congress came within one vote of approving a balanced budget amendment in 1995, just months after Republicans won control of both chambers. The plan passed the House 300-132, but the 65-35 tally in the Senate was just shy of sending the amendment to the states.
The vote was really 66-34, but when it was clear the measure would fail then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, changed his vote to no so he would be eligible under Senate rules to reconsider the issue. A subsequent vote also failed.
Since 1995, no balanced budget proposal has come anywhere close to passing, and Coburn says that should come as no surprise.
“They don’t want to balance the budget, because then they have to make hard choices, then they have to be accountable to their electorate. If the electorate doesn’t like the choices that they made, they’ll replace them. It’s an insurance policy if I don’t have to have a balanced budget,” said Coburn.
“The easiest thing in the world is to spend somebody else’s money and that’s what they do every day. They spend our grandchildren’s money because we’re certainly not spending our own right now,” said Coburn.
Next on the amendment list is to “limit the scope and jurisdiction of the federal government.” Coburn says a ridiculous case from 1942 effectively gave the federal government to meddle far too intimately in our lives.
“An Ohio wheat farmer grew 18 acres more wheat than he was allotted, but he used every bit of it to feed his own cattle, his own family and used it for feed the next year. The federal government said that’s interstate commerce because you didn’t buy that 18 acres worth of wheat from somewhere else,” said Coburn.
“So they expanded the commerce clause and that is what has allowed the federal government to tell every state – in everything they do now – what to do,” said Coburn.
Coburn says returning power to state and local authorities also heightens accountability, pointing out it is much easier to get an appointment with your state representative than a member of the House or Senate.
Coburn cited a recent poll showing 86 percent of Americans don’t trust the federal government. He says that places America in a crisis that returning power to states and locales can help to address.
“When you quit trusting the central authority, then you will no longer follow its will. That’s called anarchy. So we have to take back our freedom. We have to re-establish the rule of law and make sure it’s followed. But also it has to have the integrity of the central government in terms of a limited federal government,” said Coburn.
The third and final amendment Coburn and his allies are pushing would limit lawmakers to 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 12 years in the U.S. Senate.
“Prior to a Supreme Court ruling in 1994, 26 states had limited the terms of their members of Congress. In an Arkansas case, the Supreme Court decided that we as citizens can’t decide whether we want to limit the terms of our federal representatives. Well that’s ludicrous. So what you do is pass an amendment that puts a limit on the amount of time people can serve,” said Coburn.
Coburn says 12 states are already on board. He expects another 10-12 states to join the effort in the next 12 months and another 10-12 in the year after that, meaning a convention of states could take place within two to three years.
He is quick to stress that the convention itself cannot ratify the amendments. That role still belongs to the states. Coburn is bullish on that front as well, noting that Republicans are just 24 seats away from controlling the legislatures in 38 states.
Ultimately, Coburn believes the success or failure of this campaign will depend upon the courage to do what has to be done.
“Do we have the moral structure with which to make these hard decisions for the future or do we just let this train run out of control down the mountain? That’s the real question,” said Coburn.
“If you love your kids, you love your country, and you love your future, you ought to be about choking down the federal government and having it live within its means, lessening it’s impact on the economy so the economy can actually grow,” said Coburn.