A troupe of musicians dressed in tricorne hats and other colonial-era attire escorted a parade of Republican legislators and activists to a conventional hall in Colonial Williamsburg, where they would embark on an “immersive experience” — rewriting the U.S. Constitution.
For three days in August, 115 “commissioners,” as convention organizers branded them, from 49 states participated in a mock constitutional convention — simulating an event that legal scholars warn could result in minority rule and a radical curtailment of federal protections if it actually occurred.
Right-wing activists have long advocated for a constitutional convention, an untried method for changing the country’s founding document provided for in Article V of the Constitution, which empowers states to call for a convention that moves forward once two-thirds of them do so. So far, 19 states have signed on to a resolution from the Convention of States calling for a constitutional convention to radically curtail federal powers. But this method remains untried because to date every single one of the Constitution’s 27 amendments has been adopted by the alternative method provided for in Article V: the adoption of individual amendments by a two-thirds vote of Congress, followed by ratification by the states.
At the end of the three-day mock convention in August, delegates adopted six “Official Proposals,” all of which are designed to weaken the federal government and lock in conservative political controls.
Among the senior advisors to the Convention of States is Michael Farris, former CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, a designated hate group that is currently seeking religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws and pushed to overturn Roe v. Wade after half a century of abortion access in the U.S. Another is Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who explicitly laid out the anti-democratic vision that would allow for minority control over a constitutional convention, as articulated in 2021 audio obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).
The August dress rehearsal was the third simulated constitutional convention the group has held since launching its campaign in 2013 in conjunction with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — at Mount Vernon, the historic home of America’s first president.
The six proposals adopted this round reflect the far Right’s longtime wish list for rewriting the Constitution, first encapsulated in Mark Levin’s 2013 book The Liberty Amendments, but with a new nod to a populist term limits campaign that has gained traction in recent years.
“If the adage ‘practice makes perfect’ has merit, be afraid — be very afraid,” warned Russ Feingold, a former senator from Wisconsin and now president of the American Constitution Society, in The Nation.
Rolling Back Federal Powers
The majority of the proposals adopted at the mock convention seek to curtail the federal government’s discretionary spending authority, land ownership rights, ability to regulate interstate commerce — and, most radically, power to enforce any federal law or regulation with which the majority of state legislators disagree.
The latter proposal would allow a simple majority of states to band together to rescind any act of Congress, the president, or a federal agency. Furthermore, it gives state legislatures exclusive power to nullify federal laws and regulations, making it clear that “state executive and judicial branches shall have no authority or involvement in this process.”
Delegates also adopted a proposal to radically restrict the Commerce Clause — which is the basis for most federal environmental, labor, consumer, and civil rights protections — and nullify all existing laws and regulations in conflict with their cramped reading of the Constitution. Conservatives have long bristled at the expansion of federal regulations made possible by various Supreme Court interpretations of the Commerce Clause over the past century. For instance, its 2012 decision upholding the Affordable Care Act led dissenting justices to warn that the government’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause makes it “a font of unlimited power” and “undermines state sovereignty.”
Long animated by concern over federal debt, the conservative-dominated mock convention adopted a measure that would severely limit federal spending. The idea is that spending would max out once it reaches the average annual revenue collected in the previous three fiscal years. In addition, it would be controlled by coupling this measure with an exceedingly high bar for raising federal taxes.
One proposed amendment to these fiscal restraints, which was voted down in a voice vote, would have capped federal spending at 18% of GDP. An opponent to this explained his reasoning by stating that he had “no faith that a government agency like [the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis] would give us honest numbers” in terms of the actual gross domestic product in any given year.
Federal spending as a percentage of GDP has been roughly 20–24% since the 2008 housing crisis, though it peaked at nearly 31% in 2020, according to data compiled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. A reduction of from 24% to 18%, for instance, is the equivalent of cutting $1.5 trillion in federal spending — roughly the amount the federal government spent on social security this year.
The mock convention also adopted prohibitions on the federal government owning, regulating, or controlling land or mineral rights except when granted permission by a state’s legislature. If such an amendment ever passed, it would be a veritable coup for the fossil fuel industry, which wields its strongest political influence at the state level.
Imposing Term Limits
Unsurprisingly, the mock delegates adopted a provision on term limits for elected officials on Capitol Hill: nine terms (18 years) for representatives and three terms (18 years) for senators, with no members of Congress allowed to serve more than 24 years total.
Locking in the Judiciary
Finally, in response to progressive calls to expand the size of the Supreme Court, the delegates at the mock convention adopted a proposal to limit the number of justices to the current nine — a move that would protect the decades-in-the-making, dark-money bankrolled conservative supermajority now in place.
Convention of States has won passage of its far-reaching convention calls in 19 states, and ALEC-led groups claim that they have28 state applications for their balanced budget amendment proposal — just six shy of the 34 needed to trigger a convention.
“They have an agenda that is pretty clear,” Feingold said in an interview last year. “They want to gut the ability of the federal government to protect the environment, to protect civil rights laws, to protect voting rights. They could ban abortion in the Constitution.”