Campaign to Convene Constitutional Convention Jeopardizes Americans' Fundamental Rights and Values

Posted March 22, 2017

MP3 Interview with Jay Riestenberg, campaigns & states media strategist with Common Cause, conducted by Scott Harris


A well-funded campaign by conservative groups calling for a constitutional convention to enact a balanced budget amendment has flown under the radar of most of America. Now, the effort to convene such a convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution is within striking distance of gaining the required number of states to succeed. If only six more states sign on, proponents of a convention will have the 34 states needed to hold the first constitutional convention since the original convention of states drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of states adopted calls for an Article V convention to propose a balanced budget amendment, but concerns about the potential of a runaway convention led more than 12 states to rescind their endorsement of the effort. More recently, the state of New Mexico rescinded their original 1979 call for a convention, due to the unpredictable direction of a new convention that could eliminate current constitutional rights and protections, influenced by wealthy conservative and corporate interests.

Although some progressive activists favor holding a convention to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened up U.S. election campaigns to unlimited and unaccountable money in politics, the primary advocate for a convention has come from Republicans and right-wing special interest groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which is funded by multibillionaires such as energy and chemical industry magnates Charles and David Koch, who have a combined net worth of over $95 billion, slightly larger than the state budget of Florida. Between The Line’s Scott Harris spoke with Jay Riestenberg, campaigns & states media strategist with Common Cause, who explains why his group and others strongly oppose the effort to call a constitutional convention. [Rush transcript.]

JAY RIESTENBERG: Under Article V of the U.S., there's basically two ways to amend the Constitution. The first way, which has always been used, is you get two-thirds of each chamber in Congress to pass the amendment and then it goes to the state and 38 states, or three-fourths of the states have to ratify it. And throughout our 230-year constitutional history, that's always how we've been able to amend the Constitution.

For about the last 50 years or so, there has been an effort underway by conservative groups who have been pushing for a new constitutional convention – the other way to amend the Constitution under Article V. And that's when you can get two-thirds of the states, or 34 state legislatures to call for a convention. And today, we're frighteningly close to getting to that, as conservative groups such the American Legislative Exchange Council – a corporate lobbying group that does a lot of its work in secret – now have. They claim 28 states on the record calling for a convention.

The problem with calling an Article V convention for one reason, which is what most groups are doing, is (that the groups claim) that it only needs to be about one issue. So what that means is they call an Article V convention to enact a balanced budget amendment. (But) anything can be brought up, anything from restricting the 1st Amendment, to repealing Supreme Court decisions around marriage equality and health care and immigration and abortion access, to restricting privacy rights and voting rights. So in theory, under an Article V convention, everyone's constitutional rights and civil liberties could be up for grabs.

BETWEEN THE LINES: From my understanding, this is maybe the closest the nation has been to actually, in reality calling one these conventions.

JAY RIESTENBERG: So actually, it takes 34 states to call a convention, or two-thirds of the states, which is 34. In the late 1970s and 1980s, we were dangerously close as we are now with about 30 or 31 states, and all of sudden state legislatures realized that this was a really bad and dangerous idea. So states started to rescind them. And what we've seen over the last 10 years is a renewed effort by conservative groups, Koch brother-funded groups, to start this process again. And so, today, most people agree, we're at 28 states, meaning only 6 states away from calling a convention. Now that's scary on its face, but what's even scarier – since this is being pushed by conservative, mostly Republicans – is that there are currently eight Republican-controlled states that do not have a application on the books. So the numbers are really in the special interest groups who are wanting to call a conventions favor.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Now what is your organization or other groups that are opposed to convening such a convention doing to actually turn the tide in the other direction. You might also mention the fact that the state of New Mexico has rescinded their original endorsement of such a convention.

JAY RIESTENBERG: Yeah, that's right. It was a great win. So, what us and other groups, both on the right and the left are doing, we're educating the public and talking to lawmakers and we're really seeing reaction from those Republican and Democrats about how bad of an idea this is, and seeing bipartisan support to stopping this. So Common Cause is really focused on rescinding some of these older calls. You mentioned New Mexico. This was a coalition led by Common Cause and some other groups in New Mexico working to rescind it, which is why we're at 28 versus 29. We were at 29 last week and luckily New Mexico rescinded. We're looking to do similar things in Maryland, Nevada, and Colorado. We did this last year in Delaware. Unfortunately, I think the numbers still are in the other side's favor. So we will definitely have to look at legal arguments we can make. A lot of these applications they call live include 28 older applications passed in the 1970s and 1980s, so there are some legal questions on whether these applications are still valid.

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