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Wisconsin Legislature Joins Radical Right's Call For A Federal Constitutional Convention

The most recent state to adopt ALEC'S model to amend the U.S. Constitution

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Wisconsin is the latest state to line up behind a national effort to amend the Constitution and cripple the federal government's ability to spend -- llikely forcing steep cuts in popular earned benefit programs such as Social Security and blocking Congress from responding to economic downturns or natural disasters -- apparently with the ultimate goal of completely overhauling America's system of governance. 

Assembly Joint Resolution 81, which passed out of committee on Wednesday, would call for an Article V Constitutional Convention to force a federal balanced budget amendment. Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides that thirty-four states (two-thirds) can trigger a convention to propose an amendment, which must then be ratified by 38 states (three-fourths). The legislation closely tracks the  “Balanced Budget Amendment Resolution” from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and allied advocacy groups promoting an Article V convention.

“AJR 81 comes right out of the ‘Convention of States’ workshop and materials presented at ALEC where state legislators were promised bundled campaign contributions and grassroots support if they joined this effort to amend the federal constitution,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, a Madison Democrat who attended ALEC’s Annual Meeting in Chicago last summer,  in a statement. “I am alarmed that this effort is now making its way through the Wisconsin legislature and is tentatively scheduled to be considered by the full Assembly next Tuesday.”

ALEC has  published a “how-to” manual for an Article V constitutional amendment, and at its last two meetings hosted workshops on amendment strategy from the group “Citizens for Self Governance,” led by Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, and  whose board includes Wisconsinite  Eric O’Keefe (who has spoken publicly about being subpoenaed in Wisconsin’s John Doe probe in his role as Director of Wisconsin Club for Growth). Citizens for Self Governance seeks to use the amendment process to severely restrict federal power, for example by redefining the Commerce Clause to prohibit Congress from enacting child labor or anti-discrimination laws. In recent years, the Article V idea has spread in Republican circles thanks to right-wing radio host and author Mark Levin, and has been  elevated by the likes of  Glenn Beck.

Following ALEC’s December 2013 meeting in Washington D.C., the primary sponsor of AJR 81, Wisconsin Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield),  co-organized a convening of around 100 state legislators  to discuss the Article V amendment process. (Last year, Rep. Kapenga was one of nine Wisconsin lawmakers who told a Tea Party group they would  seek to arrest federal officials implementing the Affordable Care Act in the state). A followup meeting is planned for Spring of this year.

The push for a constitutional convention has garnered limited attention in the mainstream media. "A lot of Americans outside of these conservative circles have no idea this is going on, that all of these strategies are being developed to basically neuter the federal government, and what the ramifications of those strategies would be in the long run,” says Rachel Tabachnik, a research fellow at Political Research Associates, who has tracked the evolution of “state’s rights” efforts to amend the constitution. “These states are seeking to undo all civil rights, social safety nets, and regulatory functions that they don't want."

Goal: Cripple Federal Responses to Economic Crises and Disasters

Although some advocates have pushed for a broader call for a constitutional convention -- the Convention of States group,  for example, hopes to "call a convention for a particular subject rather than a particular amendment" to radically alter state-federal relations -- AJR 81 is focused more narrowly on calling for a balanced budget amendment.

Since World War II, the federal government has deliberately used deficit spending as a policy tool to soften economic downturns, preventing recessions from turning into depressions by spending on programs like unemployment benefits, targeted tax breaks, or jobs training. Tax revenues decline during a recession, just as these necessary expenditures increase. Similarly, natural disasters can wreak havoc on the economy, and disaster relief can also require deficit spending. A Balanced Budget Amendment would handcuff the government at a time when economic crises, drought, and catastropic hurricanes are on the rise.