Nebraska lawmakers reject convention to limit federal government


February 23rd, 2016

Rotunda dome, Nebraska State Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News

Rotunda dome, Nebraska State Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News

After debating whether the U.S. Constitution needs to be amended to make the federal government more fiscally responsible, Nebraska lawmakers on Monday rejected an effort to make that happen. (To see how your state senator voted, click here.)

Convening a so-called “convention of the states” to bypass Congress and propose amendments to the Constitution is in the Constitution. But it’s a power that’s never been used. Nationally, five states have voted to change that, calling for a convention of the states to impose fiscal restraints and limit the power of the federal government. It would take 34 states approving a call to make it happen. In Nebraska, Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete introduced the resolution to add Nebraska to the list.

In legislative debate Monday, Ebke talked about what she sees that makes her think this is needed. “I see a $19 trillion national debt, with $100-plus trillion dollars out there in unfunded obligations that the government – our children – will have to pay off. And I worry about my kids’ future,” Ebke said.

Opponents of the convention like Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld warned that once it convened, there could be no way of stopping it from expanding its scope to cover other subjects. “Once we open the door, everything will be on the table. So maybe we come for a balanced budget amendment. But what are people willing to sacrifice and bargain away to get their balanced budget amendment? Gun rights? Reproductive rights? Religious freedom? Who knows?” Morfeld asked.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said what scares him is continuing the status quo, not calling for a convention as allowed by Article Five of the Constitution. “I think now you can see… the anger generated in the countryside by our representatives at times not listening to us. When you see people supporting Donald Trump for President? You’ve got to be kidding me. That shows the anger that’s out there that we have not listened to. That’s what scares me. The Article Five convention of states doesn’t scare me,” Friesen said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha faulted the Constitution’s treatment of African Americans, counting slaves as three-fifths of a person and prohibiting Congress from abolishing the slave trade for twenty years after the Constitution was ratified. “Twenty years they guaranteed the importation of my people! But despite the insult, the degradation that was officially sanctioned in this slaveholding, white supremacist document, it’s the only thing that the descendants of those ‘thingified’ people have to try and get some modicum of right in this country,” Chambers said.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha said he agreed with the motivation behind calling a convention, but worried about things like the possibility of a runaway convention. “The federal government has no fiscal discipline, regulatory authority gone amok, and the inability to deal with some of the critical issues this country faces, like immigration, entitlement reform and others. But I really wonder if this cure is better than the ailment,” McCollister said.

Ebke, a former college history instructor, acknowledged that some people are worried about a runaway convention. “We might be worried. But is this the time to take a risk or not? Are you worried about the nature of our national debt, or not? Do you as state legislators and as citizens believe that that the national government has gotten too (much) power or not?” she asked.

After several hours of debate, lawmakers voted 25-18 to send Ebke’s proposal back to committee, effectively killing it for this year.

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