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Donald Morrison: The battle to write America’s future

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Abortion-rights activist rally at the Indiana Statehouse in June following Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, a central target for Republicans over the past four decades. Now they're pouring money and effort into state elections in a bid to control enough state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention.

Two hundred thirty-five years ago this summer, representatives from the 13 U.S. states gathered in Philadelphia to fix the country’s cumbersome founding document, the Articles of Confederation. The delegates ended up writing a whole new Constitution.

Get ready for a rewrite. Support is growing for a new constitutional convention, one that could fundamentally change the nature of America. So far 19 states have signed onto this project. If another 15 join them, the total would meet Article V’s requirement for constitutional tinkering.

Article V, you’ll recall from civics class, provides two main ways of accomplishing that task. The first is for a two-thirds majority of Congress to propose an amendment and three-quarters of states to ratify it. All 27 existing constitutional amendments were added this way, though our partisan divisions make it a long shot these days.

The second method, never successfully attempted, allows two-thirds of state legislatures to call for a convention. They could then pass and ratify whatever amendments they choose, without any input from Congress, the President or even their own governors.

Last weekend, state legislators gathered in Denver to discuss how to make that latter scenario real. Nearly all were Republicans. The rewrite movement’s leading proponents include Republican figures like two-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum and current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as well as Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Mark Levin.

The movement has been organized and funded almost entirely by the right. The legislators in Denver, for example, were gathered for a Constitution-rewriting “boot camp” co-sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a policy group with ties to big companies and right-wing donors like the Koch family.

The push for a constitutional convention is an outgrowth of the Republican Party’s decadeslong focus on state and local elections. The GOP now has full control of 29 state legislatures.

That puts the party just five short of the two-thirds needed for calling a new convention. Republicans are pouring money and effort into this fall’s state elections, so they could end the year closer to their objective.

The ultimate goal, they say, includes weakening environmental standards, ending national education requirements, imposing term limits on both elected and career federal officials and making it harder for Democratic strongholds like Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico to obtain statehood. At a mock constitutional convention organized by an ALEC-linked group in 2016, delegates eviscerated the 16th Amendment, which established the federal income tax.

So far, Democrats don’t seem to have noticed the campaign. They’ve long been focused on politics at the national level. Besides, they argue, even if Republicans someday control two-thirds of state legislatures, they could never get the three-quarters needed to ratify any resulting amendments.

I’m not so sure. Republicans recently managed the once-unthinkable feat of overturning Roe v. Wade. They set that goal four decades ago and stuck to it with impressive tenacity.

Lately, they’ve been pouring similar determination into curbing same-sex marriage, contraception access and federal regulatory discretion. The GOP has been arguing that the power of state governments must be enhanced, not just to enact conservative proposals, but also to thwart the allegedly growing power of the federal “deep state.” Party stalwarts say they’re in this struggle for the long haul.

Some Democrats support the idea of a constitutional convention. U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, for instance, has argued that such a gathering might be the only way to enact campaign finance reform. Cenk Uygur, a progressive commentator who shares that view, has launched a pro-convention political action committee that works with ALEC and other conservative groups.

Many analysts are troubled by the rewrite idea. They fear a “runaway” convention, where unbridled delegates demolish long-standing rights and insert gifts to ideological allies and other special interests.

Even if none of those proposals ultimately gets ratified, some Democrats fear, the controversy surrounding that process would allow Republicans to dominate the national debate for years. Besides, they say, the current Constitution has served us well for 235 years, so why not leave well enough alone?

To be fair, the Constitution is showing its age. It has a tendency toward gridlock. It has saddled us with a scary Electoral College and a powerful, unelected Supreme Court. It’s riddled with confusing 18th century language about guns, citizenship, what constitutes free speech and who really makes foreign policy.

Conservatives now see a chance to fix all that, and far more. Unless the rest of us get organized, the side that already is organized will be the one that writes America’s future.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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