Whatever success Republicans have amassed in taking control of all three branches of U.S. government, and whatever fate awaits them in the midterm elections, some on the right are working to cement change by amending the Constitution. And to the mounting alarm of others on all parts of the spectrum, they want to bypass the usual process.
They’re pushing for an unprecedented Constitutional convention of the states. While opponents are afraid of what such a convention would do, supporters say it is the only way to deal with the federal government’s overreach and ineptitude.
“They literally see this as the survival of the nation,” said Karla Jones, director of the federalism task force at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which represents state lawmakers and offers guidance and model legislation for states to call a convention under the Constitution’s Article V.
Among the most frequently cited changes being sought: amendments enforcing a balanced federal budget, establishing term limits for members of Congress, and repealing the 17th Amendment, which put the power of electing the Senate in the hands of the public instead of state legislatures.
Start in the states
For the past 229 years, constitutional amendments have originated in Congress, where they need the support of two-thirds of both houses, and then the approval of at least three-quarters of the states.
But under a never-used second prong of Article V, amendments can originate in the states. Two-thirds of states, currently, 34, must call for a convention at which three-fourths of states approve of a change.
The particulars of such a convention, though, are not laid out. Do the states have to call for a convention on the same topic? Must they pass resolutions with similar or identical wording? The U.S. Supreme Court may have to decide whether the threshold of states has been reached and, ultimately, the parameters of a convention and the rules delegates would be governed by.
A bill introduced in the U.S. House last year would direct the National Archives to compile all applications for an Article V convention.
Article V resolutions
Some believe enough states have already passed Article V resolutions, pointing to votes over the years across the country on a variety of potential amendment topics. Others contend the highest possible current count of states is 28, the number of states with existing resolutions on the most common convention topic, a balanced budget amendment. Others point to lower total counts based on states that have passed near-identical resolutions.
Regardless, proponents of a convention believe they have momentum on their side more than any other time in American history.
“That second clause of Article V was specifically intended for a time like this, when the federal government gets out of control and when the Congress won’t deliver to the people what they want,” said Mark Meckler, a tea party leader who now heads Citizens for Self-Governance, which runs the Convention of States Project calling for an Article V convention. Legislation promoted by the group calls for a convention focused on the federal government’s budget and power, and term limits for office holders. It has passed 12 states and one legislative chamber in another 10.
The Convention of States Project says 18 other states are considering the measure.
Meckler, like other backers of a convention, believes there’s no reason why it can’t be limited in scope. Others aren’t so sure. Four states that previously had passed resolutions calling for a convention have rescinded them in recent years, often citing wariness over a “runaway” convention.
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, has sounded alarms on a possible convention and portrays the coast-to-coast emergence of resolutions on the issue “a game of Whack-a-Mole.”
“This is the most dangerous idea in American politics that most people know nothing about,” she said.
There are proponents of an Article V convention on the left who see it as a possible way to overturn the Citizens United campaign finance decision, pass the Equal Rights Amendment and otherwise address what they see as a stacked deck that has helped the GOP get an unfair advantage. But with more red states than blue ones, it seems an unlikely path to abolishing the Electoral College, reengineering apportionment of the Senate or otherwise devising a democracy they believe is more reflective of the American public’s views.
Earlier convention proposed
It’s not the first time a convention has been proposed.
In the 1890s, when the Senate refused to take up the issue of direct election of senators, states pursued a convention, falling just short. Eventually, the 17th Amendment passed in the usual way, fulfilling that aim. In the 1960s, states sought a convention over a Supreme Court decision dictating how legislative districts were apportioned.
Fear of runaway convention
But convention opponents have always feared that once one has been launched, it could tear up the Constitutions in all sorts of ways.
What’s to stop a convention from passing an abhorrent affront to the Founders, like an outright ban on Muslims, asks constitutional law professor Michael Klarman of Harvard University. He points to a 2009 Swiss referendum that resulted in outlawing the construction of minarets, the towers found beside mosques.
Jones said such fears are “misguided” and that “so many stopgaps” would prevent a “runaway” convention.