Coburn: Let’s change Constitution

Sen. Tom Coburn is pushing for a national convention to amend the Constitution.

The Oklahoma Republican, who has grown disenchanted with gridlock in Washington, will officially launch his effort after he retires from the Senate in a few months.

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Support for a convention of the states to overhaul the nation’s charter document has increased among conservatives, who are frustrated by Congress’s failure to reform entitlement programs.

“I think [George] Mason was prophetic that we would devolve to where the federal government became too powerful, too big and too unwieldy. That’s why he put Article V in,” Coburn told The Hill in an interview.

Article V of the Constitution stipulates that two-thirds of the states may call a convention to propose amendments to the nation’s founding document. It has never been successfully invoked.

All 17 times the nation has amended the Constitution since the adopting of the Bill of Rights in 1791, it has done so by proposing changes that won two-thirds support in the Senate and House and were then ratified by three-fourths of the states.

But with Congress these days hard-pressed to cobble together the consensus necessary to perform even the most basic functions of government — such as keeping it funded — a convention of the states is looking more attractive to Coburn.

“That’s one of the things I’m going to be working on,” Coburn said of his post-congressional plans.

“I think we ought to have a balanced budget amendment, I think we ought to have term limits. I think we ought to put a chokehold on regulation and re-establish the powers of the Congress,” he said.

Coburn, a physician who is battling cancer, believes a constitutional convention would allow the legislative branch to seize back powers that have drifted to the presidency over the years.

President Obama’s use of executive action to pursue an array of policy goals related to climate change, immigration and healthcare reform has precipitated what many conservatives are calling a constitutional crisis.

Coburn and Obama are friends who formed a bond soon after they came to the Senate in 2005. But that hasn’t prevented Coburn from criticizing the president and his policies.

Some liberal activists and scholars say they could support an Article V convention, but only if it were set up to be “cross-partisan.” That way, it could be used to rein in political spending by special-interest groups, which has exploded since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

“If the convention is set up in a partisan way, you can be certain that whatever the convention does will fail because it takes 38 states to ratify any amendment,” said Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and a self-described Democrat who supports holding a convention to reform the Constitution.

“The legitimate constitutional questions that are being put on the table are questions about the balanced budget, the size of government … as well as the integrity of the electoral process, that’s the stuff the people on the left are talking about,” he said.

Unlike a constitutional convention, which would attempt to rewrite the Constitution entirely, an Article V convention would be more limited in scope and would focus on amending the document.

Coburn said he was not sure how many Democrats could be persuaded to support a convention to reform the Constitution.

So far, most of the support has been on the right side of the political spectrum.

Coburn has been in contact with Michael Farris, the chancellor of Patrick Henry College, and Mark Meckler, the president of Citizens for Self-Governance, who are leading a push for a convention of the states.

“We’re talking to him about that,” said Farris.

Legislatures in Florida, Georgia and Alaska have already passed a proposal that Farris and Meckler have discussed with Coburn calling for a constitutional convention to address the need for balanced budgets and term limits.

Farris said his goal is for 20 more state legislatures to adopt the proposal in 2015 and the remaining dozen or so to endorse it in 2016. He wants to hold the convention in 2016 before the presidential election.

While states cannot dictate the precise language of the amendments at the convention, Farris said they can set the scope of the debate.

“By 2020, 89 percent of the federal budget will be consumed by interest on the national debt, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. That’s unsustainable,” Farris added. “Getting fiscal restraints on the federal government in the areas of taxing, spending and debt; it’s essential for the survival of the country.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh recently embraced the idea as an alternative to impeaching Obama.

“So there is impeachment to deal with a lawless president, a lawless executive. But there is another way, and it is right in the Constitution.  It’s right there in Article V of the Constitution,” Limbaugh said on his show last month. “Article V allows for the states to establish a constitutional convention for the purposes of dealing with circumstances such as we are experiencing today. If the Congress will not impeach, it’s right in Article V: The states have the power, if they want to do it.”

Conservative radio host Mark Levin has also endorsed a convention of the states.

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), are trying use the traditional path to pass a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress the authority to regulate campaign fundraising, which would essentially overturn Citizens United.

But Lessig said this initiative has virtually no chance of passing and is primarily designed to motivate Democratic donors.