Policy skirmishes between the Trump Administration and Republican Congressional leaders, and potential losses in the 2018 midterm elections may accelerate efforts by the Right to pursue its interests by amending the US Constitution.
Will they ratchet up their state-by-state campaigns to rewrite the founding document?
It’s hard to know, but the threat is real. Here’s what you should know, and what you can do about it.
Over the past several years, the Koch Brothers, Mercer family and others have pumped significant new dollars into decades long efforts to rein in the federal government. The vehicle is Article V of the Constitution, which calls for a constitutional convention to be convened at the application of two-thirds (34) of states. Twenty-eights states have now passed resolutions authorizing such a convention, leaving just six more to set the process in motion.
Article V has until fairly recently been a tool favored by proponents of a balanced federal budget. That initiative in currently led by a Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, which sponsors a national campaign and now counts twenty-eight states as having enacted state resolutions for a balanced budget amendment. The American Legislative Exchange Council has drafted and promoted model state legislation among its conservative constituents.
More recently, Tea Party activists have organized a much broader initiative with reported investments of $10-12 million by Koch Brothers interests and the Mercer family. Their Convention of States proposal would “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.” It’s a balanced budget+ amendment that might fulfill Grover Norquist’s infamous goal to “… reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” High-powered lobbyists like former US Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint have fanned out across the country and helped push twelve states to pass COS resolutions. ALEC has supported this Article V campaign as well. The Convention of States’ aggressive game plan calls for political operations in at least 40 states and recruiting at least 100 volunteers in three-quarter of states.
A lesser Article V proposal comes from the other end of the political spectrum. With support from progressive media entrepreneur and Wolf PAC founder Cenk Uygar, this decidedly more grassroots effort aims to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision and constrain the role of money in politics. Just five states have passed Wolf PAC resolutions.
The gravest threat proposed by these Article V campaigns is that they risk opening up a Pandora’s Box of constitutional meddling over which the states and the courts would have little control. Irrespective of the specific mandate that states write into their authoring legislation, delegates to a constitutional convention would be free to offer, debate and propose any constitutional amendment for which they recruited sufficient support. With the notable exception of Larry Lessig at Yale Law School, the few legal scholars who have studied the issue see no reason not to fear a “runaway” Article V constitutional convention. Delegates to the one historical US precedent, convened in Philadelphia in 1787, chose without authority to scrap the governing Articles of Confederation and draft an entirely new US Constitution. And in the most relevant Supreme Court decision, the high court in 1939 held that the whole process of amending the Constitution was a political issue over which the judiciary had no authority.
It’s not hard to imagine how the same billionaire class that has distorted our politics in recent years could manipulate an Article V Constitutional Convention to reshape the Constitution to its liking.
This doomsday scenario has a silver lining. Fear of an unfettered “runaway convention” has engendered both liberal and conservative opposition and Odd Couple alliances to defeat state resolutions authorizing an Article V Constitutional Convention. Just last month, Idaho legislators voted down Convention of States legislation opposed by progressive state policy groups, the teachers union, the Eagle Forum and the John Birch Society.
The fight to preserve civil rights, civil liberties, and federal authority to protect the environment and promote the common good is paramount in the coming years. But the potentially catastrophic consequences of a successful Article V Constitutional Convention demands attention as well. Common Cause and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have thus far led the opposition with little donor support. Their efforts merit more attention and resources. We ignore the Article V campaigns at our peril.
What can we do?
- Support organizations at the frontlines like Common Cause and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
- Educate yourself.
- Spread the word. The more you know … and the more that others know, the better. Our voice is essential for a vibrant democracy
- Use your voice – even louder. Contact your state representatives. Grassroots public opposition from across the political spectrum to Article V legislation has overwhelmed the political influence of its deep-pocketed proponents. Keep it going!