Democracy Dies in Darkness

Post Partisan | Opinion

The biggest threat to democracy that nobody is talking about

September 4, 2018 at 6:01 AM

The U.S. Capitol. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post/)

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

“It’s actually one of the biggest threats to our democracy that most people have never heard about.”

That threat is a constitutional convention called by the states. The last time such a thing happened was in 1787. So messy was that affair that it hasn’t been done since. But a renewed effort is underway, an effort that Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, told me was the one issue that kept her up at night.

Conservatives are pushing to call an Article V convention to add a balanced-budget amendment and other ideas to the Constitution. All they need is the approval of 34 state legislatures (no governor’s signature needed) to compel Congress to call such a gathering. Right now, 28 states have passed resolutions calling for an Article V convention. That number would be 32 had Common Cause and other groups, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, not successfully gotten Delaware, Maryland, New Mexico and Nevada to rescind their resolutions. Still, once the 34-state hurdle is cleared, despite pledges of a discrete, narrow focus, no one knows what could happen.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that the United States needed to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget. (Oct. 11) (The Washington Post)

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“Once a convention is convened, they could take up any topic they want to. And in fact, the one time we had a convention in 1787, the delegates to that conference rewrote the Constitution,” Hobert Flynn told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “There is nothing in the Article V itself in the Constitution, there is no jurisprudence or anything in statute that says [the convention] needs to be limited. And so they could take up anything they want.” In addition to no rules governing what is discussed at an Article V convention, there are no answers to some basic questions:

CAPEHART: Who are the delegates and how are they chosen? Do we even know?

HOBERT FLYNN: We don’t know. We don’t know how they’re chosen. It could be that they’re selected based on every state gets two delegates. We have no idea.

CAPEHART: Who determines that?

HOBERT FLYNN: Yeah, we don’t know who determines it. We don’t know if it’s Congress, we don’t know who determines it.

CAPEHART: And that’s because there’s no provision for any of this … That’s specified in the Constitution.

HOBERT FLYNN: That’s right.

CAPEHART: Who pays for this?

HOBERT FLYNN: That is another thing we have no idea.

CAPEHART: Will this convention be public?

HOBERT FLYNN: I doubt it would be public, but we don’t know that either.

“Many of the groups that are supporting this talk about undoing a woman’s right to choose, marriage equality, eliminating the [Environmental Protection Agency]. I mean they have a long list of things that they would like to do,” Hobert Flynn continued. “Rein in the power of the federal government. They want to abolish all kinds of things that most people would be concerned about, their rights and liberties, that all of us take for granted.”

Karen Hobert Flynn peaks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart during an interview for the “Cape Up” podcast on Aug. 27. (Carol Alderman/The Washington Post/)

Hobert Flynn noted that the American Legislative Exchange Council breathed new life into the proposed constitutional convention by advocating for a balanced-budget amendment a few years ago. But she also singled out Mark Meckler, president of Convention of States Action, whose handbook specifically says, “We want to call a convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.” Discussing his effort on Fox News on Aug. 19, Meckler said of the opposition to an Article V convention, “They actually said something truthful. They said this is intended to reverse 115 years of progressivism and we say, yes, it is.”

“So think about the progressive movement,” Hobert Flynn told me after bringing Meckler’s comment to my attention during the interview. “It’s what reined in corporations with antitrust measures. We’re talking about the women’s suffrage movement. We’re talking about consumer protections. We’re talking about Brown v. Board of Education. We are talking about education, environmental rights, civil rights, voting rights, all of those kinds of things.”

Listen to the podcast to find out more about what is at stake. That blue wave you’re hoping for in November? That’s nothing compared to the constitutional changes that could result from a convention. “You’re creating a lock box,” Hobert Flynn said, “which makes it very hard to undo it for generations to come.”

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj
Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast


Jonathan Capehart is a member of The Post editorial board, writes for the PostPartisan blog and is host of the "Cape Up" podcast.

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