Politics & Government

Movement to let states rewrite the U.S. Constitution comes to Kentucky

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A growing movement that wants the U.S. Constitution to be rewritten at a national convention has made the Kentucky legislature its next target, with odds that look better than they once did.

On Feb. 14, a group called Convention of States plans to rally at the state Capitol in Frankfort and lobby members of the General Assembly. The group says state Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Rockfield, has agreed to file a resolution on its behalf calling for a national convention under Article 5 of the Constitution.

Under Article 5, if 34 states pass a resolution calling for it, the states can convene their own constitutional convention to amend the founding document’s language, bypassing the usual route through Congress. Article 5, which consists of one long run-on sentence, offers scant guidance on procedure, such as how delegates would be chosen, how many delegates each state would get, who would oversee the process or how a decision could be appealed.

So far, a coalition of groups working toward this goal over many years has pushed resolutions through 28 state legislatures. That leaves six states to go. The Tennessee Senate approved an Article 5 resolution on Monday and sent it to that state’s House.

“I think it’s a real threat at this point,” said Arn Pearson, general counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy, which opposes the Article 5 movement. “These are groups with some real money behind them. They’re thinking that with the Republicans holding more positions of power in this country than they have in a long time, now is a good time to rewrite the Constitution in ways that lock in those gains.”

Another member of the Kentucky House, state Rep. William Scott Wells, R-West Liberty, already has filed House Concurrent Resolution 13, which calls for an Article 5 convention specifically for an amendment requiring federal budgets to be balanced.

“Our debt is gonna kill us if we don’t get it under control,” Wells said Tuesday. “I saw something from one of the groups talking about the need for this, and it made sense to me.”

Like Wells, Convention of States wants a balanced-budget amendment. It’s also proposing amendments that would impose term limits on federal officeholders and limit the size and power of the federal government, said Ken Clark, the group’s regional director.

“Kentucky has been a difficult state for us in the past. We’ve tried to file resolutions there before, but we were told that we were pretty much D.O.A. — dead on arrival — in the House because the Democrats were in control,” Clark said. “Well, obviously, everything has changed for you now. You’ve got a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican governor.”

Convention of States is a project of the nonprofit Citizens for Self-Governance, run by a former Tea Party Patriots leader named Mark Meckler. Other groups are pushing their own Article 5 legislation in statehouses, including the corporate-financed American Legislative Exchange Council. Many of them offer different ideas for amendments.

At a mock Article 5 convention held last September in Williamsburg, Va., delegates called for abolishing the federal income tax; giving state legislatures the power to override federal laws, regulations and executive orders; and stripping the federal government of most of its authority to regulate interstate commerce, among other proposed changes.

“There are a lot of different factions in the constitutional convention movement,” Pearson said. “Some want it to be restricted to just one issue, usually balanced budgets. Others don’t really want any limits. And there’s really no limiting the scope of a convention once it’s been called.”

Some Article 5 efforts are financed by corporations and wealthy businessmen who resent the federal government because they don’t like paying taxes or obeying regulations, said Jason Bailey, executive director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy in Berea.

The average American would get little say in what happens at a convention, Bailey said. Organizers who said they wanted to curb excessive federal regulations could start tinkering with the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment’s freedom of speech or the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, he said.

“We have to remember, it’s not going to be Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sitting at the table this time to rewrite the laws that govern our country. It’s going to be the Koch brothers and the oil industry and other special interests looking out only for themselves,” Bailey said.

“This was once considered a fringe idea. And it is utterly insane to even consider this, tearing open the Constitution at this moment in our history when we are so bitterly divided politically,” Bailey said. “But people need to realize that this could really happen.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution

The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of this Constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three-fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year 1808 shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.