Last week, the Arkansas Senate approved an effort to join other states in asking for a national convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The senators narrowly approved the resolution calling for a convention of the states to take up amendments imposing fiscal restraints on the federal government, limiting the federal government’s powers and imposing term limits on Congress.
The proposal would need at least 33 other states to agree for a convention to be held, and 38 states to ratify the amendments. Surprisingly, the proposal has passed in at least 12 other states.
Conservatives in other states have been pushing for similar resolutions, while opponents have said they’re afraid of what such a convention would do.
For the convention to be triggered, all 34 states have to ask for the same thing. Once they do though, critics argue the floodgates open. Once a convention is called, literally anybody can bring up anything. The theory is known as a “runaway convention.”
“Once you call a convention literally anybody can bring up anything,” said Jay Riestenberg, a spokeman for the non-partisan watchdog group Common Cause. “We can bring up an amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade or the Civil Rights Act.”
The U.S. Constitution really does provide a mechanism for a super majority of state legislatures to call a constitutional convention, where delegates could propose amendments to be ratified by the states.
In all this time, the states have not had the votes to invoke Article V powers to convene another convention since 1787.
On the agenda for the right-wing group Convention of States: first and foremost, an amendment to require a balanced budget, followed by term limits for Congress, repealing the federal income tax and giving states the power to veto any federal law, Supreme Court decision or executive order with a three-fifths vote from the states.
A coalition seeking just the balanced budget amendment currently has 28 out of the required 34 state legislatures onboard, with active bills calling for a convention. (By the way, Vermont already has a balanced budget clause in its state constitution.)
A balanced budget amendment has been a holy grail for the right since the 1930s. In the 1980s, conservatives made a push for a balanced budget constitutional convention and, 20 years later, the idea was resurrected as part of the Tea Party platform. Conservative groups are targeting 13 states: Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. They hope to have the numbers they need before July 4.
Liberal groups have also pushed for an Article V convention in response to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling as a means to winnow back the influence of money in politics. A group called Wolf Pac is leading that charge and has secured legislation in five of the 34 required states.
It’s all a head-scratching loophole.
We should be mindful — and cautious — of these convention pitches, in part because the of proposals’ origins on both sides.
It’s worth noting that these proposals enjoy broad support from Americans. But this does not feel like the right mechanism with which to install change at the national level.
It’s true, Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, wanted the Constitution to expire. His belief was stated in a letter to James Madison, the fourth president, when he said, “the question whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water.”
What Jefferson was saying is one generation should not bind another to their own beliefs or laws. He knew that as the country grew and as time advanced, new beliefs would start to grow and take form, which could cause discourse and interpretation of the country’s laws.
The Center for Media and Democracy has tracked the movement. Arn Pearson, an analyst for the center, describes the campaign for a constitutional convention as “a very live threat.”
“If between the groups they get to 34 states,” he says, “there is really nothing preventing them from aggregating those calls even if they’re not identical and pushing for a convention.”
This is not the only answer to our nation’s problems.
In reaction to the push being made, one pundit posited that maybe the best alternative is electing more insurgent candidates to Congress, state and local office; strengthening and expanding direct democratic institutions like the ballot initiative process; making constitutional changes that elevate democratic decisions above corporate personhood; and building a movement that engages the thousands of communities where governance has been all but quashed by legal doctrine and legislation.
That all seems far more democratic.