Angry conservatives seek constitutional convention

U.S. Capitol

COLUMBIA — A roomful of angry conservatives Wednesday implored South Carolina lawmakers to join with other states in holding the first constitutional convention since the nation’s founding.

The speakers, representing the tea party-inspired Convention of the States movement, told a Senate subcommittee that the federal government is out of control and needs to be reined in using Article V of the U.S. Constitution. The article addresses holding a convention to consider amendments to the Constitution if 34 states pass resolution calling for it. Amending the Constitution would require ratification by 38 state legislatures.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, has introduced three bills allowing South Carolina to call for convening a constitutional convention for the purpose of amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget and banning same-sex marriage.

“Even if we do fall short we send a strong message to Congress these things do need to occur,” Grooms said.

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, known for his bills defending gun rights under the Second Amendment and attempts to restrict abortion rights, said he was skeptical of what such a convention could accomplish.

“(Federal judges) have fundamentally stripped the states of all sovereignty,” Bright said.

Many who attended the meeting were from the Convention of States project, a grass-roots movement that is promoting resolution in dozens of states.

Bob Menges, a Summerville resident who leads South Carolina’s Convention of States project, said legislators shouldn’t fear the detractors.

“They hold this part of the Constitution in contempt,” Menges said of Article V. “They are telling you to your face that you cannot be trusted.”

A similar constitutional convention movement in the 1970s and ‘80s fell short of the 34 states, and some political observers say it’s a near impossible hurdle, in part because states have different reasons for wanting to amend the Constitution.

While legislatures controlled by conservatives have mentioned banning gay marriage and the federal debt as their reasons, other state legislatures have talked about reversing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which removed restrictions on nonprofits’ and corporations’ donations to campaigns and candidates.

According to IAmAmerican.org, an advocacy group, and John Steinberger, Charleston County GOP chairman, who is working with the group, 25 states have. Currently, 25 states have passed resolutions calling for a Convention of States amendment that would force the federal government to balance its budget. That number could not be independently verified.

Florida, Alaska and Georgia have passed measures that would allow the states to consider a broader range of topics, according to media reports.

Kendra Stewart, associate professor and director of the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston, said more Republican Legislatures and broad dissatisfaction with the federal government give the movement a slim chance, if only to help conservative causes and candidates raise money and their profile.

Still, it’s a refrain of an old states’ rights argument, she said.

“This debate has been settled numerous times, whether it’s through the Supreme Court originally saying there is such a thing as national supremacy and the Constitution,” she said. “At this point this is a last ditch effort.”

If it were to succeed, the movement would need to convert Republicans like Joan Brown, a member of the Dorchester County GOP who testified Wednesday. She worries that a constitutional convention wouldn’t achieve what conservatives want — or would instead backfire as states pursue competing agendas.

“We should know better than to throw a Hail Mary pass to think (Congress) would finally obey the Constitution,” Brown said. “This certainly could become a fairy tale with a very bad ending.”

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.