The Wisconsin Assembly’s Committee on Federalism and Interstate Relations will hold an executive session today on whether to call for the first national Constitutional Convention since 1787.
At 1:00 p.m., the committee is debating three measures related to Article V of the U.S. Constitution, which lets states convene a national gathering to amend the constitution, independent of the federal government.
As Simon Davis-Cohen reported for In These Times in 2016, a constitutional convention has long been a prize of corporate interest groups and states-rights advocates. While the Maine House rejected a convention proposal last week, 12 other states have recently applied to hold one. Combined with 16 states that passed resolutions during a conservative push in the 1980s, that brings the total to 28 — just six short of the 34 needed to trigger the confab.
As Davis-Cohen documents, ALEC — the Koch-brothers-funded dark money group — has been a major force behind the bills, distributing model legislation to friendly state lawmakers. The group hopes to use the convention to shift power to the states, proposing amendments to “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government” and repeal term limits for federal officials and members of Congress.
ALEC may be close to getting its wishes granted. After the November elections, Republicans now control both legislative chambers in 32 states. In 25 of those states, they also hold the governor’s mansion.
Wisconsin, in particular, has been a beachhead of rightwing state takeovers. The Koch brothers and other right-wing interests contributed handsomely to Gov. Scott Walker’s 2010 election campaign — an attempt to turn the traditionally progressive state into a laboratory for free market policies. Following suit, the language around Article V in Wisconsin suggests the state will use the convention to propose “amendments relating to a balanced budget.”
If ALEC can get six states on board to trigger a convention, that and other proposed amendments would need support from three-fourths of states — 38 in total — to get added to the constitution, with governors serving as tiebreakers. Other than that, there are few rules dictating how such a convention would be run or how delegates would be selected. Warning of the anarchy that might result, former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger wrote to Phyllis Schlafly in 1988 that there “is no effective way to limit or muzzle the actions of a constitutional convention.”
Since Burger’s time, state-level politics have proven fruitful for the Right. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican state power has been a vehicle to push through brutal austerity programs and anti-union “right to work” measures, despite massive protest. Attorneys general like Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt (now head of the EPA) used states as a vehicle to ally with corporations in fighting Obama-era regulations. Now, GOP-controlled states could enable what might be Republicans’ greatest consolidation of power yet.
“I really see it as a return to the Confederacy,” Arn Pearson, of Wisconsin’s Center for Media and Democracy, has said. “They want the ability for states to override Supreme Court rulings and any federal law they don’t like.”
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Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.