The Conservative Dream to Force a Constitution Do-Over
An Article 5 convention could put cherished American constitutional rights up for grabs.
A group of deep-pocketed, dark-moneyed conservatives is in striking distance of triggering Article 5 of the US Constitution to call for a constitutional convention, a process that could overhaul entire sections, leaving hard-won provisions over civil rights, citizenship, abortion rights, and the safety net up for grabs.
A total of 34 states (two-thirds of 50) are needed to trigger Article 5. The group is enticing Republican-controlled state legislatures to bring their states on board. The count is fluid but some estimate the tally is only six states short.
This is not a mere Constitutional Amendment. A constitutional convention sponsored by conservatives could make the American Dream “fair game.”
Article 5: How It Works
Our founding fathers wrote Article 5 to provide two ways to make changes to our country’s governing document. The first way has been used to enact the Constitution’s 27 amendments: an affirmative two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress and then ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Article 5 also offers a way for the states to bypass a congressional vote. It stipulates that two-thirds of our state legislatures can petition Congress to call for a constitutional convention to propose amendments–that’s plural–to the Constitution. This has never been done before. Article 5 offers no guidance or rules on how a convention would proceed.
Article 5 Stirrings: Balance Budget Amendment
An effort to add a Balanced Budget Amendment to our Constitution gathered steam in the seventies and eighties. By 1989, 32 states had signed on. Two issues sealed its fate: fears of a “runaway convention” and prominent economists asserting that deficit spending was essential to long-term economic growth. Doubts led to over a dozen states rescinding their BBA petitions between 1989 and 2010. There were bigger fish to fry.
The Convention of States
The cabal of conservative leaders and donors have turned their attention from a Balanced Budget Amendment to call for an Article 5 “Convention of States” to advance an agenda ” that will 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.”
Of course, they realized that such a conservative fantasy would make two-thirds passage in Congress improbable. So the group is furiously working the aisles in state legislatures to win the hearts and minds of Article 5 convention skeptics.
The group’s leaders include the usual suspects: The Mercer family reportedly kicked in $500,000 in seed money; the Koch Brothers’ Donors Trust; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), former Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, and especially Tea Party “Patriot” co-founder Mark Meckler.
What Could Go Wrong?
Meckler is also reportedly working to shore up support among fellow right-wingers who fear a runaway convention could jeopardize their prized Second Amendment rights. And that’s the thing: With no foundational rules, a constitutional convention could be expanded in scope to any number of issues not raised by the state legislatures. Who would choose delegates? Who would get to vote on proposals?
In any case, this seems certain: In a time of extreme gerrymandering, unequal representation, and bottomless political spending, the smart money is on wealthy special interests from red states prevailing to rewrite the rules on how Americans are being governed.
Fighting the Good Fight
The progressive advocacy organization Common Cause has made opposition to an Article 5 constitutional convention its number one issue. Founded in 1970, Common Cause has evolved into a true citizens’ lobby advancing the well-being of the nation over special interests, “dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government,…and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in a government that belongs to them.”
The pro-constitutional convention group, Convention of States Action, recently tallied 19 states that have passed resolutions calling for an Article 5 convention. They include every single state in the deep south and two battleground states that voted for President Biden in 2020: Arizona (passed March 13, 2017) and Wisconsin (January 25, 2022).
The group counted seven states where the petition has passed one legislative chamber but not the other…yet.
But this count is fluid. For example, Montana’s state legislature last month passed the Article 5 petition 26-24. But due to intensive lobbying by Common Cause that included flooding lawmakers’ offices with phone calls and emails, one vote was switched and the motion was tabled. But convention backers aren’t backing down but doubling down: Montana will take another vote, according to Feb. 28 dispatch from Common Cause.
Gaslighting the Public
Meanwhile, convention backers keep sending boilerplate letters to state lawmakers that make it sound as if the Article 5 convention push is a grassroots movement that has broad popularity. After all, a portion of its agenda is vaguely appealing: term limits, balanced budgets, and “fiscal responsibility.”
A grassroots conservative movement? “I’m not convinced that the Convention of States project is really a movement,” contends David Super of Georgetown University, who has testified against a convention in numerous states. “It’s a well-funded organization that passes itself off as a movement.”
Join the Fight
Common Cause is just one of the more than 240 organizations that oppose calls for an Article 5 constitutional convention. They run the gamut of the League of Women Voters, environmental groups, labor unions, La Raza Action Fund, Americans for Democratic Action, and the Brennan Center for Justice.
Give one a call.