It’s been more than 230 years since America’s last constitutional convention, but there is growing confidence in some conservative circles that the next one is right around the corner – and could spell disaster for entitlement programs like medicare and social security, as well court decisions like Roe v Wade.
“I think we’re three or four years away,” said the former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn on Friday, speaking at the annual convention for American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec) – a powerful rightwing organization that links corporate lobbyists with state lawmakers from across the country.
Coburn, a veteran Republican lawmaker, now works as a senior adviser for the advocacy group Convention of States, which seeks to use a little known clause in article V of the US constitution to call a constitutional convention for new amendments to dramatically restrict the power of the federal government.
Coburn, who retired from the Senate in 2010, said that the American republic is “failing”, and that such a convention is the “only answer” to the problems the country faces today.
“We’re in a battle for the future of our country,” Coburn told the assembly of mostly conservative state lawmakers meeting in New Orleans. “We’re either going to become a socialist, Marxist country like western Europe, or we’re going to be free. As far as me and my family and my guns, I’m going to be free.”
Convention of States, with Alec’s support, is one of three prominent conservative groups pushing for a new constitutional convention. Under article V, if two-thirds of state legislatures so choose, they can force congress to convene such a meeting. On the agenda for Convention of States: an amendment to require a balanced budget, 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.
“The only chance we have to restore this country, that is peaceful, is this convention,” said Jim Moyer, a Convention of States supporter and attendee at the Alec annual meeting.
It’s not as far fetched as it sounds. A coalition seeking just the balanced budget amendment currently has 28 out of the required 34 state legislatures on board, with active bills calling for a convention. Since Trump’s election, Arizona and Wyoming have both passed bills to join in the call while Maryland, Nevada and New Mexico have repealed versions they had previously put on the books.
Convention of States and its more expansive to-do list doesn’t have as many states in play as the balanced budget group, but it does boast a big roster of well-known conservative supporters such as Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul, and a reported 2.5 million volunteers ready to mobilize: “double that of the NRA [National Rifle Association],” pointed out Rita Dunaway, the staff council at Convention of States.
Their partnership with Alec makes success that more likely. No group in US history has been so successful at getting similar and sometimes nearly identical pieces of legislation passed in multiple states, often within a period of one or two legislative sessions.
Unity among conservatives seeking an article V intervention is paramount. 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 you call a convention literally anybody can bring up anything,” said Jay Riestenberg, a spokesperson for the non-partisan watchdog group Common Cause. “We can bring up an amendment to overturn Roe v Wade or the Civil Rights Act,” Riestenberg added.
Coburn and Dunway both bristled at the possibility of what is known as a “runaway convention”, where conventioneers go beyond their original mandate, perhaps so far as to write an entirely new constitution. This is technically what happened during the framing of the current constitution in 1787, when attendees were tasked with amending the Articles of Confederation, but wound up crafting something new entirely.
Coburn cited the three-fourths barrier – three out of four states need to agree for any proposal made to become law – a firewall to concerns over “runaway”. “All it takes is 13 judiciary chairmen, in 13 states, to stop anything stupid that might come out of that,” Coburn said. “Nothing’s going to happen, I’ll stake my life on that.”
The panelists broadly tabbed “liberals” as the opposition to their hopes, but the politics of an article V convention aren’t so cut and dry. Some of the most virulent opposition to the movement has arisen in the far right John Birch Society which argues that a convention could “rewrite our constitution and destroy its protection of our rights”.
Conversely, some 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 leading that charge and has secured legislation in five of the 34 required states.
Tom Buford, a Republican state senator from Kentucky, said he’s been to both of the “simulations” that Convention of States has staged – including one held in 2016 at Colonial Williamsburg complete with period costumes and wigs.
“I support their thought, I’m OK with it, but I’m not the poster child,” Buford said. He thinks some of the proposals, like veto power over the supreme court go too far, and said that decades in state government have shown him the limitations of things like balanced budget amendments.
“A balanced budget amendment is a nice idea, and it will make people feel happy if that amendment were to pass but it wont solve the problem,” Buford said. Kentucky (like every other state besides Vermont) has a balanced budget clause in its state constitution, but lawmakers routinely find ways around.