This year’s legislative season saw a strong push in the states from right-wing groups, bankrolled by the Koch brothers and other ultra-conservative billionaires, hoping to convene a national constitutional convention in order to inject rigid fiscal constraints into our country’s founding document. Advocates of a federal “balanced budget amendment” (BBA) picked up two more states, Wyoming and Arizona, in their drive to win the 34 resolutions needed to bypass Congress and convene a convention to propose changes to the U.S. Constitution.
That momentum, however, was blunted by surprisingly successful campaigns to rescind convention calls in three states, New Mexico, Maryland, and Nevada. As a result, BBA proponents now claim 27 states in their column, down from 28 at the beginning of the year.
Two steps forward and three steps back…from the brink of a political experiment untried since 1787.
Under Article V of the Constitution, amendments can be proposed either by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, or through a convention called for by two-thirds of state legislatures (currently 34 states). After adoption at a convention, any amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the states (currently 38 states) before it can become part of the Constitution.
While amendments proposed by Congress have been adopted 17 times since the Constitution’s ratification, a constitutional convention has never been called. Critics of this approach, from the Left and the Right, are concerned about how such a convention would play out in this era of massive political spending by billionaires and corporations, especially since there is nothing in Article V limiting the scope of a convention once called.
BBA momentum stalls
Backers of a balanced budget amendment convention set their sights on at least seven red states this year, but of those, Wisconsin is the only one still in play, with an Assembly vote scheduled for June 14. Growing opposition resulted in the hard-fought defeat of a BBA resolution in Idaho and the tabling of a similar measure in Kentucky.
More than 200 organizations, including the Center for Media and Democracy, signed onto a letter in April 2017 denouncing an Article V convention at this time as “a dangerous threat to the U.S. Constitution, our democracy, and our civil rights and liberties.”
In addition, three legislatures rescinded prior convention calls, following Delaware’s lead last year. As a result, the number of states with BBA convention calls has dropped by one; passage in Wisconsin would make the year a wash.
The groups behind the convention drive are disappointed but undeterred, and have targeted at least seven states for 2018, (Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington).
“With tremendous momentum led by ALEC and other arch-conservative organizations, we started 2017 expecting to see Article V resolutions pass in many states,” said Common Cause campaign strategist Jay Riestenberg. “Instead, in this dangerous period of divisive politics, we saw bi-partisan cooperation in several states to protect the Constitution.”
“While three states took action to protect our Constitution by rescinding Article V convention resolutions, wealthy special interest groups are still dangerously close to calling a convention that would put everyone’s constitutional rights and protections up for grabs,” Riestenberg said.
All of the bills are closely tailored to model measures being promoted by the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force. Funded and controlled by large corporations, including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, telecom, and tobacco companies, ALEC has supported a BBA since 1995 and renewed its push for a constitutional convention in recent years, publishing an Article V convention handbook for legislators and hosting numerous strategy sessions.
BBA advocates cite “common sense” concerns about “fiscal responsibility,” but the rhetoric masks the outright hostility that the Kochs and other billionaire backers have for key federal programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and for the regulatory infrastructure that protects consumers and the environment. Prominent economists warn that such an austerity amendment–which would constrain discretionary spending but not tax giveaways for corporations and the wealthy–would have catastrophic results during economic downturns and cripple the federal government’s ability to aid states as they deal with the severe impacts of climate change.
More radical measures gain momentum
Meanwhile, a faction of the Article V convention crowd seeking a much more radical rewrite of the Constitution made significant gains in 2017. The “Convention of States” (COS) project, run by the Texas-based Citizens for Self Governance, introduced wide-ranging resolutions calling for a broad convention to limit the powers of the federal government in 24 states and won passage in four, Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota, and Texas.
COS, whose budget more than tripled between 2011 and 2015 to $5.7 million, now has a total of 12 states behind its more unlikely, but more dangerous, approach. The group, founded by Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler and Koch-tied dark money man Eric O’Keefe, has received major support from the Koch-linked Donors Trust and backing from ALEC, which has adopted COS’s proposal as a “model” bill. It seeks a constitutional convention to pass any number of amendments designed to limit the powers of the federal government, adopt term limits, and allow states to opt-out of regulations and even Supreme Court decisions they do not like.
The COS strategy, if successful, would radically revise the Constitution’s structure of state and federal power sharing in a way that goes to the heart of what it means to be “united states.” Most of the states that have passed Convention of State resolutions are in the deep south, prompting some critics to call it the “New Confederacy.”
Max Abbott contributed to this article.
Carol A. Johnson
I am concerned that this information is not getting through to many ordinary American citizens who would not support these ideas if they had the knowledge of what this “fiscal common sense” really means for this country and our basic rights and principles.
The oligarchs are keenly aware the rapidly evolving demographics, are close to ending their reign. Too many ordinary citizens have less than modest cognition for the cataclysm embedded within, seemingly innocuous language presented as ‘fiscal common sense.’ The politicians whom the Koch’s employ; have fully abdicated the oath to this country, willful are they in striking the iron toward dissolution of democratic principles to govern ‘for the greater good.’ The success of these people can be found of course, within the confines of a highly sophisticated network of ‘all in corruption tactics’ – and simplified alarmist messaging. Why can’t we begin a campaign based on facts – that reveals the hideous underside of the far right’s true motives? My God, that would scare the hell out of any patriotic citizen.
G. S. Stewart
Let’s call it what it is: not “arch-conservative” but Fascist Oligarchy—fashioned precisely after the Russian model under Putin and the Russia oligarchy. Which is likely why Russia played such a big part in the “election” of 2016. These people are working vigorously to destroy a democratic republic and install their fascist oligarchy.
The convention would not stop, not by a long shot, at BBA—their sights are on the 1st, 5th, and 14th amendments, along with Article 1, Sec.3, Art.8. They’re not simply trying to “balance the budget,” they’re looking to entirely rework the Constitution of the Founders to dictate laws that will increase their wealth and disenfranchise The People.
Having an Article V Constitutional Convention is not what our Founding Fathers wanted. Northern delegates to our first Constitutional Convention voted for Article V in hopes to appease Southern delegates into approving the final Constitution draft. They didn’t.
During the first Convention there were some calls to adjourn and reorganize into a second Constitutional Convention. James Madison strenuously objected and said so in a letter to George Lee Turberville where he said, “Having witnessed the difficulties and dangers experienced by the first Convention which assembled under every propitious circumstance, I should tremble for the result of a Second.”
Instead Madison devised 12 proposed amendments to be introduced by the other Article V means, that is, through the safe mode of amending the Constitution, through Congress.
10 amendments made it through Congress. They were ratified by the required ¾ of the states. They are known as the Bill of Rights.
Each of the other 17 amendments to the Constitution have been introduced through Congress.
Of interesting note: The wrongly named Convention of States (COS) will never tell you is that the first two petitions to Congress calling for an Article V Constitutional Convention were for a general convention. Not the specifically worded subject matter proposed amendments that the Conference of States organization tried to push through in the 1980s or the general subject matter proposed amendments being pushed through the States now by COS. It was a long 42 years before another state sponsored proposed amendment was introduced.
Their official position is they’re not sure if general subject matter proposed amendments will stand up to Constitutional muster or legal challenge. But their subterfuge is: They’re hoping to pull the wool over the eyes of enough state legislators and enough Citizens long enough to get us into a dreadful convention.
Oppose any Article V Constitutional Convention calls.
Limited federal government was tried by the founding fathers via the Articles of Confederation; written by Ben Franklin in 1775. The Federalist Papers cover the failures of the Articles of Confederation in extraordinary detail. This led to the Constitutional Convention, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights… Been there, done that!
Those who ignore history are trying to repeat it!