On the Brink of a Constitutional Crisis

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  • dale eisman, scott swenson
Report Details How a Constitutional Convention, Pushed by Balanced Budget Activists and Fueled by Big Money, Could Imperil the Nation's Charter

All but unnoticed by the public and press, balanced budget activists and an assortment of big money interests are close to triggering a political and governmental crisis in the form of a new constitutional convention, Common Cause argues in a report released today.

The Dangerous Path. Big Money’s Plan to Shred the Constitution,” examines a decades-old campaign on behalf of a convention under Article V of the Constitution. The unprecedented assembly could re-write the 238-year old Constitution, imperiling civil rights and the system of checks and balances at the heart of the nation’s charter, the report warns.

Twenty-seven state legislatures have passed resolutions calling for a convention to draft an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, the report notes. Action in just seven more would force Congress to comply.

“We’re sounding an alarm,” said Common Cause President Miles Rapoport. “The movement for a new constitutional convention is dangerously close to success. No one knows who would lead this unprecedented assembly or how it would work but the result would almost certainly be political chaos that would make past upheavals like the Watergate scandal and the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton seem tame by comparison.

“This is a national train wreck that must be stopped,” Rapoport said.

The report details how conservatives determined to force massive cuts in federal spending and frustrated by Congress’ refusal to do their bidding have seized on Article V of the Constitution as a vehicle to secure a Constitutional amendment that would require a balanced budget. Central to their effort has been the deep-pocketed support of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a partnership of large corporations and state lawmakers that calls itself a charity but functions as a lobby for business-friendly state laws and operates in secret, away from public scrutiny.

The report is being released as ALEC-member legislators and the organization’s corporate sponsors convene behind closed doors in Scottsdale, AZ, for an annual “policy summit,” including a workshop on “What Ordinary Citizens Think about the Article V Solution and How You Can Become Their Champion.”

Never invoked, Article V calls on Congress to convene a constitutional convention if petitioned to do so by legislatures in two-thirds (34) of the states. Since the 1970s, 27 states have submitted petitions calling for a convention to draft a balanced budget amendment; efforts to secure approval are underway in eight other states with Republican-controlled legislatures, the report says. While the Republican National Committee declared its opposition to an Article V convention in 2012, GOP lawmakers in the states have spearheaded the balanced budget amendment drive and the convention has the backing of several of the party’s presidential hopefuls.

More recently, the report adds, four states with Democratic-controlled legislatures have petitioned for an Article V convention to propose an amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens Uniteddecision on campaign finance. The case is one of several that have raised or abolished limits on political spending by corporations, trade groups, unions and wealthy individuals.

“Common Cause favors an amendment to overturn Citizens United,”Rapoport acknowledged. “But we’re unwilling to put the entire Constitution at risk in an Article V convention. There is simply no way to ensure that a convention would be limited to a single issue or a small group of issues. Instead, there’s every reason to fear it would turn into a free-for-all, endangering fundamental rights and triggering economic and political chaos.”

Rapport said Common Cause is making opposition to calls for a constitutional convention a priority for its state chapters in the upcoming 2016 legislative session. The organization remains concerned that too few people, including media, are paying attention to the planning for an aggressive push by ALEC early next year, and the possibility that convention backers may achieve their goal, he added.