Say this for the Biden and Trump administrations: Both rekindled an interest in federalism, judging by the success of the high-flying convention of states movement.
In the past month, two states — Nebraska and Wisconsin — have passed resolutions to hold an Article V convention focused on clipping the wings of the federal government, bringing the total to 17 states, or half of the 34 needed to trigger the event. Article V of the U.S. Constitution lays out the amendment process.
The resolution is primarily a conservative phenomenon, but Convention of States Action President Mark Meckler has high hopes for attracting Democrats who saw the Trump presidency as a wake-up call on the pitfalls of a powerful central government.
“Look, on both sides of the aisle, people believe that Washington, D.C., is completely out of control,” Mr. Meckler said. “They might believe it for different reasons, but when it was a Trump administration, Democrats were furious, and when it was a Biden administration, Republicans were furious. Everybody knows D.C. is out of control, and everybody wants D.C. out of their business.”
The resolution would have Congress call a convention of states limited to proposing constitutional amendments to “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.”
Proposed amendments would need the support of the majority of states (26) to pass out of the convention and begin the ratification process. As with amendments introduced by Congress, two-thirds of the states, or 38, would be required for ratification.
The resolution is also making headway in Kansas, South Carolina, West Virginia and even deep-blue Massachusetts, where the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs released H. 3660 with a favorable report on Feb. 1, the day before the deadline to move bills.
Convention of States Action celebrated the panel’s decision as a “blue state breakthrough.” It said that was the first time a Democratic-controlled legislature had passed the resolution out of committee.
Introduced by state Rep. Bradford Hill, a Republican, the Massachusetts bill advanced despite the opposition of groups on the left such as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union, which have raised the specter of a runaway convention.
“An Article V convention would be a dangerous threat to the United States Constitution,” Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said at a Jan. 7 hearing. “There is no language in the U.S. Constitution to limit a convention to just one issue, and it is widely understood that a convention, once called, will be able to consider any amendment that the delegates want to consider.”
Those concerns have resonated with Republicans who fear a convention could threaten, for example, the Second Amendment. The Republican-led South Dakota Senate killed a convention of states bill this month after it passed in the House.
Convention supporters staunchly disagree. They say the assembly must be limited to a single issue, which is why every state must pass an essentially identical resolution.
Even if 26 states pass an amendment that runs afoul of the resolution’s language, the measure would still need to be ratified by 38 states, “the highest bar in American government,” Mr. Meckler said.
Only 17 amendments have been added to the Constitution since the original 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791.
“I hear this all the time, that we’re going to destroy the Second Amendment, that California’s going to take away the Second Amendment,” said Mr. Meckler. “I just do the math for people: If it takes 38 states to ratify, that means it takes only 13 states to stop it. That means just one house in each of the most conservative 13 states in America.”
He said there are 24 state legislatures that allow visitors to carry handguns and 15 where “you can actually carry a long gun across your back into the gallery in the legislature.”
“That may not be a good idea, but you can,” said Mr. Meckler. “The idea that you couldn’t find one house in 13 states to object to repealing the Second Amendment is just fantastical. It’s absurd and ridiculous.”
While the focus is on the resolution, Convention of States Action has more on its plate, starting with “building the largest self-governing grassroots army in America,” Mr. Meckler said.
Since its founding in 2013, the group has swelled to 5.2 million members and activists, he said. In the past two years, they were involved in more than 250 races, including the ongoing recall of the school board in Loudoun County, Virginia. He expects that number to grow to 400 this year.
“Yes, we’re aiming at a convention, but a convention is not enough,” Mr. Meckler said. “Even if we got a convention and we proposed amendments and they got ratified, if they didn’t know how to run for school board, if they didn’t know how to lobby their state legislature on other issues, we’re still going to lose the country.”
“One of the flaws in the tea party movement was we never really had a plan. We were activists, we were angry, we were frustrated, we expressed that frustration at the ballot box, and that was kind of the end of it,” he said. “That’s a very simplistic view of American politics, and it’s incorrect. The levers of power are much deeper and much more complicated than just voting.”
With the convention of states resolution, he said, “[people] look at this and say, ‘Oh, OK, I get what you’re doing. I see the endgame, I get the plan, and I want to be part of it.’”
The convention of states is often called a constitutional convention. Organizers said that term erroneously suggests that the convention could, by itself, alter the Constitution.
“This is not the sort of convention that has the power to propose a new Constitution or to change the Constitution,” the group’s website says. “The only thing an Article 5 convention can do is to propose an idea for how to fix a broken system — a system that has become corrupted by a Congress that can’t function.”
Common Cause’s Mr. Foster said “we have a process to amend the Constitution.” He cited the other path laid out by Article V, by which amendments are proposed by a two-thirds vote of Congress and then ratified state by state.
The only constitutional convention in history was held in 1787, when delegates replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.
“Our position is that there are no guidelines in the Constitution to how such a convention would be conducted, and there’s too much risk, especially at this time in our country’s history, to open the gates with such uncertainty,” Mr. Foster said.
“A lot of people are really upset about it, but I think it’s phenomenal. I think it’s exactly what needs to happen in America,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a negative thing in any way. I think people misunderstand what’s going on.”
Mr. Meckler said the nation came together during World War II, but “we’ve never been one big, happy family.”
“The idea that we’re all the same and we can all be governed by a central government: That belies our history,” he said. “The country’s never been that way. It wasn’t founded that way. The government wasn’t structured that way. And so I think what we’re doing right now is just going back to our history, and if we do it correctly, if we do it in a healthy way where the country will survive, it drives us directly back to federalism.”
During the Trump administration, Democratic governors banded together on a host of initiatives to counter the White House. One was the U.S. Climate Alliance, which sought to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord after Mr. Trump exited.
Mr. Meckler said blue states should want a convention of states as much as red states. After all, Mr. Trump could run for president again in 2024.
“The goal is not policy; the goal is jurisdiction. The question is, who has the power to decide?” Mr. Meckler said. “The goal is to give California the power to decide, and Illinois and New Jersey and New York, the same with Texas and Louisiana and Arkansas. So it’s really not a partisan thing. It’s being seen that way, but it’s not. And I do think eventually we’ll start to make progress in blue states.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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