Guest Blog: Push for National Convention Would Put Constitution Up for Grabs and Lead to Major School Funding Cuts

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Today's guest blog post comes from Michael Leachman, Director of State Fiscal Research, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

As state legislative sessions begin, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and related groups are ramping up a nationwide  campaign to convene a  constitutional convention that would propose amendments stripping the federal government of much of its power and leading to damaging funding cuts for the nation’s schools and other priorities.

Here’s the background.  Under Article V of the Constitution, Congress must call a convention to propose constitutional amendments if two-thirds of the states formally request one.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many states passed resolutions calling for a convention to propose a federal balanced budget amendment.  At one point, 32 states had passed resolutions along these lines, close to the 34 states required.  But over the next 25 years, no more states passed resolutions and half of the states that had passed resolutions formally rescinded them, fearing that a convention would throw open the Constitution to harmful changes. 

The tide turned in 2010 as ALEC and its allies began pushing anew for state resolutions.  Since then, 11 states have adopted new resolutions calling for a convention to propose a balanced budget amendment.  Some proponents claim that 27 states have “live” applications, including those passed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s but never rescinded.  They’ve targeted another 13 states for the coming year.  If they succeed in seven of these states – a real possibility – they could claim to have met the 34-state threshold that forces Congress to call a convention. 

In the past year, a separate but similar effort to use Article V to call a constitutional convention also has gained momentum.  It’s being pushed by the Convention of States Project, whose model resolution calls for a convention to propose amendments “that 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.”  Alabama, Alaska, Florida, and Georgia passed this sort of resolution in the last two years, and the Convention of States Project is targeting other states. 

The movement has the vocal support of some well-known hard-core conservatives.  ALEC claims that legislative leaders in some 30 states are committed to the effort.   

These unfolding events are highly alarming.  The Constitution provides for no authority above that of a convention, so once a convention is called it’s not clear that anyone could stop it from proposing any number of drastic changes to our system of government. 

Indeed, constitutional experts from the late Chief Justice Warren Burger to Justice Antonin Scalia to Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe have warned that a constitutional convention would place the nation in uncharted territory, putting the Constitution up for grabs.  Delegates could even choose to alter the rules for ratifying amendments — just as the 1787 convention that drafted the Constitution did — such as by calling for ratification by national referendum rather than approval by three-fourths of the states. 

Further, no rules have been established for conducting this sort of convention.  How would delegates be selected?  Would each state get the same number of delegates?  How many votes would be needed to approve a proposed amendment?  With so much at stake, these issues would likely be fought out in a highly partisan atmosphere heavily influenced by large political donors.  And with Congress and 31 state legislatures under full Republican control, the rules could be set in a way that helps ALEC and its allies advance radical changes they’d never get through normal legislative procedures. 

At the very least, these changes likely would include balanced budget amendment, which alone would be a disaster for the nation's schools and the economy more broadly.  During a major recession, this sort of amendment would likely lead to massive cuts in federal support for schools and other public services delivered at the state and local levels.  Large cuts in federal spending, in turn, would worsen job losses during recessions, causing unnecessary pain for families across the country – pain that would add to stress and other difficulties for children in school. 

Even if the effort to call for a convention fails, it could build momentum for Congress to propose a balanced budget amendment or other harmful amendments directly to the states. 

ALEC and its allies are working hard to convince state lawmakers that a convention is safe and that states can easily control it.  That’s simply not the case, and a large number of groups are gearing up to educate state lawmakers about the dangerous realities of a constitutional convention. 

With state legislatures in session over the next few months, now is a good time to connect with others concerned about these resolutions in your state.  You can do so by contacting the group in your state belonging to the State Priorities Partnership (our network of state fiscal policy organizations) or the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  There’s a great deal at stake. 

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