This report sounds the alarm about a dangerous proposal bubbling up in state legislatures throughout the country.
The threat is a constitutional convention, convened on the petitions of at least 34 state legislatures as specified under an Article V of the Constitution and empowered to rewrite or propose new amendments to that document. Its advocates span the ideological spectrum, including right-of-center supporters of new limits on federal power, from a constitutional requirement that the federal budget be balanced, to backers on the left of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, a ruling that reversed decades of well-settled law limiting corporate political spending.
Common Cause strongly opposes an Article V convention, even as we strongly support a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. We oppose a constitutional convention because we believe there is too much legal ambiguity that leads to too great a risk that it could be hijacked by wealthy special interests pushing a radical agenda that poses a very real threat to American democracy.
A convention of states drafted our Constitution in 1787, including Article V as one of several mechanisms for future amendments. Article V itself has never been used but would be triggered once 34 state legislatures submit applications for a new constitutional convention; it then requires Congress to convene a new convention to draft and submit new constitutional amendments to the states for ratification.
There are no settled rules or procedures to govern an Article V convention and it cannot be limited in scope. Though some constitutional convention proponents say they intend to pass a single amendment – to balance the federal budget or reverse Citizens United — there is nothing to prevent the convention, once convened, from proposing additional changes that could limit or eliminate fundamental rights or upend our entire system of government.
It’s also unclear how delegates would be chosen. If the selections were made by today’s largely gerrymandered state legislatures, the convention would likely have a decidedly Republican bent, despite the fact that surveys show fewer Americans identify as Republicans than as Democrats. If delegate selection were based on population size, then larger states, where Democrats generally have an advantage, would produce a convention tilting toward the left. One accounting of applications puts constitutional convention proponents within six states of the 34 necessary to call a convention.
Thanks to the financial and organizational muscle, including millions of dollars in undisclosed, tax-deductible contributions, of the corporate-dominated American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the organizing of those pushing for a convention to overturn Citizens United, what once seemed impossible is now within reach. And with it comes a great threat to our democracy.
This report examines the pro-convention campaign from both ends of the spectrum and illuminates the dangers posed by its possible success, making the case that a convention could easily exceed its mandate to focus on budget issues and instead undertake a wholesale and highly divisive re-write of our nation’s charter.
ALEC, a corporate lobby disguised as a charity, and the conservative activists aligned with it, are pursuing three paths toward an amendment. In more than two dozen states, they have secured legislative approval of resolutions calling on Congress to convene an Article V convention to enact a balanced budget amendment. Some also are pushing a “Compact for America” initiative, which would bind participating states to petition Congress for a convention for a balanced budget amendment once three-fourths sign the compact. Others are advancing an initiative they call the “Convention of States.”
The report warns that the legal ambiguity around Article V, the financial power of special and corporate interests in the post-Citizens United era, could combine in a convention with today’s already hyper-partisan political environment to pose a major threat to our constitutional system and government.
Next Page: The Threat