The race to secure states
The push for a constitutional convention isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Between 1957 and 1983, 32 states passed calls for a convention to discuss a balanced budget amendment — two states away from the required total. The National Taxpayers Union, a conservative advocacy group that works to rein in federal spending, led the effort decades ago.
But Alabama reversed its call in 1988 after intense lobbying from the John Birch Society, the Eagle Forum, the progressive nonprofit Common Cause, the Daughters of the American Revolution and Norman Lear’s liberal People for the American Way. It was the first of 16 states canceling their calls between 1988 and 2010.
"We have a wonderful Constitution that has lasted for 200 years, and we don't think anybody should play games with it," Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly told The Washington Post at the time.
Almost two decades after states began withdrawing their legislation, Lessig and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the conservative Tea Party Patriots, helped rally a renewed push for a convention. They brought together around 300 people at Harvard University Law School in 2011 for the Constitutional Convention Conference (nicknamed the Con Con Con). There, the two men on opposite sides of the political spectrum preached about corruption in Washington and why a convention was a citizen’s last resort to combat it.
“Politicians profit when we are inflamed against each other,” Meckler said in his opening remarks. “If we spend time fighting each other, the politicians can do what they want. It’s the incumbents versus the citizens. Those are the two parties we are facing today.”
Around the same time, ALEC and related groups jumpstarted a new campaign to hold a convention to discuss a balanced budget amendment. ALEC, primarily funded by corporations and trade groups, released Natelson’s handbook for state lawmakers, drafted model legislation and held workshops on the subject at their annual conferences.
The convention supporters are trying to build off the earlier wins in the 1970s and ’80s, because the votes do not expire, according to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.
“Let’s get Article V passed, get the power out of Washington back to the local government where the founders intended it to be,” said Mike Huckabee, a keynote speaker at ALEC’s annual meeting in San Diego last July.
The group’s latest conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, in December hosted two convention sessions, one titled “Beyond the Ivory Tower and onto Main Street: What Ordinary Citizens Think about the Article V Solution and How You Can Become Their Champion.”
ALEC did not return multiple requests for comment. But the group has written about its push on its site: “The federal government has steadily consolidated its power while eroding state control.”
Connected to ALEC, the Florida-based Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force lobbied state legislators in at least 13 states in 2014, according to its tax return, with successful resolutions passed in Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia and Indiana.
The task force has targeted 13 more states in 2016: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina and Maine.
Those pushing for the conventions face some legislative leaders who refuse to send any convention bills to a vote, such as Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs, a Republican, according to the task force’s co-founder, David Biddulph. But he said his organization has connected with like-minded groups to help push through these barriers.
“We’ve got extremely limited resources but extremely valuable friends,” Biddulph said.
While primarily composed of volunteers, the task force has partnered with larger, well-resourced groups to push their message and lobby state legislators, including ALEC, the conservative think tank Heartland Institute and the D.C.-based small business organization, the National Federation of Independent Business, Biddulph said.
Another ALEC ally, the Virginia-based Convention of States, is founded by Meckler’s right-wing advocacy group, the Citizens for Self-Governance. With big name conservative endorsements ranging from Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to Fox News host Sean Hannity, Convention of States uses similar tactics as ALEC: providing model legislation, citizen toolkits and responses to opposing arguments. The group hosted Article V workshops at recent ALEC conferences and has planned information sessions in Arizona, New Jersey, Illinois and Virginia for this January and February.
Convention of States members did not return requests for comment. However, its co-founder Meckler told Fox News after Rubio endorsed the effort in December, “I’ve never been more excited about our prospects for achieving real governmental reform as I am right now.”
The advocates are bolstered by last year’s momentum. A Center for Public Integrity review of legislation found that state lawmakers introduced approximately 190 bills in 45 states last year about conventions on a range of issues. Bills passed in at least seven states.
Supporters are also taking more symbolic action. Activists introduced a ballot measure in California to seek a constitutional amendment and Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proposed nine constitutional amendments to strengthen state powers earlier this month, urging Texas and other states to push them using an Article V convention.