On Friday, lawmakers in the House spent nearly all of their time on the floor to discuss and debate Representative Merril Nelson’s (Republican – Grantsville) HJR 3 – Joint Resolution Calling for a Convention to Amend the Constitution of the United States.
“House Joint Resolution 3 calls for Utah to join other states in petitioning Congress to call a convention of the states for the purpose of considering amendments to the Constitution to limit the powers of the federal government,” Nelson explained at the start of his presentation while providing additional background.
“13 sovereign states came together to establish a federal government. Their greatest fear in doing so was that this federal government would grow in power and expense until it had violated the sovereignty of the states and would overcome the states. And so the founders, to address this concern, limited the powers of the federal government, separated the powers of the federal government into three branches – provided checks and balances, and then reserved all remaining powers to the states and the people…Over the past 100 years, those checks and balances have begun to weaken and fail and now we have seen a tremendous expansion and encroachment of the federal government.”
Nelson would complain that Congress now had too much say on policies such as clean air regulations, the president has wielded too much power with executive orders, and that the federal courts have extended the Constitution to cover things better left to the states such as making rulings on ” where to define life and marriage.”
Nelson went on to accuse opponents of HJR 3 of not seeing the bigger picture.
“Some of our friends on the left say that there is no problem with big government – they like a big, strong, federal government – a government that will take care of us from cradle to grave. They like the feeling of security. To them I say that unchecked power of the federal government will not stop…Our friends on the right, by contrast, some of them acknowledge that we have a problem with big federal government. But they are concerned, they fear the Constitutional remedy provided by the founders and they say they do not want to approach that now. To them I say that if we wait we will have reached the day where we have lost our state sovereignty and our personal freedoms.”
Representative Ed Redd (Republican – Logan) was the first lawmaker to speak against the bill. Continually hounding Nielson, Redd noted time and time again that all power Congress, the president, and the judiciary directs back to the people; all the budget deficits, federal regulations, presidential actions, and legal decisions can still be overturned if the people elect different representatives – a fact Nelson begrudgingly agreed to.
Redd also asked how many conventions of the states have actually taken place. Despite Nielson’s previous statement during his opening that “the tradition of state conventions are well established in our history – we need not fear a convention of the states, it was a regular pattern of conduct.statement that there is precedent,” he once again had to concede that no actual conventions have taken place the force of law. “I am not sure what part of the Constition that is broken that we are trying to fix. The problem is that we are electing people over the last 150 years that are not following the Constitution.”
Redd would conclude by telling the body that he is “not sure what part of the Constitution that is broken that we are trying to fix. The problem is that we are electing people over the last 150 years that are not following the Constitution.”
Representative Kay Christofferson (Republican – Lehi) focused his support for the resolution on hopes that it would put greater controls on the federal government, specifically he would voice support for a balanced budget amendment that he feels can only pass if a convention of the states took place. Similarly, Representative Steve Eliason (Republican – Sandy) attempted to calm fears of a “runaway convention” by noting that 3/4ths of the states (38 total) would need to ratify any Amendments coming from the convention, implying that it would have a very high bar for one party or one ideology to hold sway, an opinion echoed by Representative Lowry Snow (Republican – St. George).
After the 2016 elections, Republicans had a trifecta (control of a state’s House, Senate, and governors office) in 26 states. In total Republicans control 31 House chambers, 37 Senate chambers, and 34 governorships after the 2016 election.
Representative Sandra Hollins (Democrat – Salt Lake City) was deeply concerned about how minorities would be treated during such a convention. “When the Constitution was originally written it was not written with everyone who was living in the United States in mind – it was not written for me or for my forefathers – and I am concerned that a lot of peoples voices would not be heard at this table…this will be a convention of the rich and the powerful, and that is not who I represent.”
Meanwhile, Representative Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City) took exception to Nelson’s prior comments about the feelings of the left on big government.”I don’t distrust this process, it is written into the Constitution for crying out loud…here is what I have a problem with, it’s comments about ‘some of the left liking a strong central government.’ Well, some on the right like a big strong government too, like when it comes to interfering with the market by bullying companies about where they do business, or keeping people from certain religions or distressed nations from entering our country, or telling women that they can’t control their bodies, or putting in tariffs or barriers to prevent free trade, or limiting who can or can’t vote once they have been in office for a certain period of time, that troubles me…the things that are being proposed in the convention are not wise.”
In a verbose response, Representative LaVar Christensen (Republican – Draper) cautioned that such a constitutional convention would present “serious, unintended consequences” particularly in regards to the often proposed balanced budget amendment. He would note that things like the proposed equal rights amendment had their goals achieved without such drastic changes to the Constitution itself; ultimatly calling Nelson’s resolution and the thinking behind it a “blank check” for the states to make changes to the Constitution without serious debate.
The final lawmaker to speak during the hour-long debate was Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan) who would compare the Constitution to the standard LDS Bishop’s Handbook by recounting the story of when he was first called into a LDS Church leadership posision. “I was excited, I wanted to help my neighbors, and we would do great things. And when problems come up, as problems do, I would come up with these creative solutions ‘we could do this, or we could do that’ to solve the problem; and the leader would just sit back and say ‘Brother Ivory, I have an idea, why don’t we check the handbook.’ Representatives, we have the handbook. Men that we believe were raised up by God, who said by divine providence they established a more perfect union with the Constitution. In that handbook it says that we have the power, we state legislators, have the Constitutional power to maintain the system.”
Quoting James Madison, Ivory added “the state legislators are the sure guardians of liberty,” and that “We can redeclare independence right now with a document. Not a musket or a pitchfork. We can reestablish the divisions and the limits of power right now without a war and a battle under the rule of law.”
Nelson, in sum invoked the works of Benjamin Frankilin: “We have given you a republic if you can keep it,” adding that “We are in jeopardy of losing our republic. At this point federalism has been turned on its head. States are subservient to the federal government. States are no longer equals in our government. States must be restored to their proper role of equal, sovereign partners, in the government of this country…I’m not saying the Constitution is broken, but Congress is broken, the President is broken, and the Supreme Court is broken. The only way we can repair this is through a constitutional amendment.”
“There is nothing draconian, nothing dark, nothing dangerous [about a convention of the states]. It’s just states talking. We attended a simulated convention of the states to prove that this can be done without harm to the Constitution, without harm to our rights.”
Though the debate was long, the final vote was quick, passing the House 45-29. HJR 3 is now off to the Senate for its consideration.