A Second Constitutional Convention? Some Republicans Want to Force One

A new book by a former Democratic senator warns of the risks of allowing states to call for a convention. Some in the G.O.P. see it as the only way to rein in the federal government.

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By Carl Hulse

WASHINGTON — Representative Jodey Arrington, a conservative Texas Republican, believes it is well past time for something the nation has not experienced for more than two centuries: a debate over rewriting the Constitution.

“I think the states are due a convention,” said Mr. Arrington, who in July introduced legislation to direct the archivist of the United States to tally applications for a convention from state legislatures and compel Congress to schedule a gathering when enough states have petitioned for one. “It is time to rally the states and rein in Washington responsibly.”

To Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin and president of the American Constitution Society, a liberal judicial group, that is a terrible idea. Mr. Feingold sees the prospect of a constitutional convention as an exceptionally dangerous threat from the right and suggests it is closer to reality than most people realize as Republicans push to retake control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.

“We are very concerned that the Congress, if it becomes Republican, will call a convention,” said Mr. Feingold, the co-author of a new book warning of the risks of a convention called “The Constitution in Jeopardy.”

“This could gut our Constitution,” Mr. Feingold said in an interview. “There needs to be real concern and attention about what they might do. We are putting out the alert.”

While the rise of election deniers, new voting restrictions and other electoral maneuvering get most of the attention, Mr. Feingold rates the prospect of a second constitutional convention as just as grave a threat to democratic governance.

“If you think this is democracy’s moment of truth, this is one of those things,” he said.

Elements on the right have for years been waging a quiet but concerted campaign to convene a gathering to consider changes to the Constitution. They hope to take advantage of a never-used aspect of Article V, which says in part that Congress, “on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments.”

Throughout the nation’s history, 27 changes have been made to the Constitution by another grindingly arduous route, with amendments originating in Congress subject to ratification by the states.

With sharp partisanship making that path near impossible, backers of the convention idea now hope to harness the power of Republican-controlled state legislatures to petition Congress and force a convention they see as a way to strip away power from Washington and impose new fiscal restraints, at a minimum.

“We need to channel the energy to restore and reclaim this country’s traditional values and founding principles of limited government closest to the people and individual freedom and responsibility,’’ Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who has become a convention champion, told a conservative conference this spring in the state.

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Mr. Santorum was pushing for Pennsylvania to become the 20th state to formally call for a convention in recent years, out of the 34 states required. But it is not clear exactly how many states have weighed in, since not all have adopted the same language and some petitions were submitted decades or longer ago and may even have been rescinded.

Mr. Arrington believes that when pending petitions are fully tallied, the 34-state goal might already have been exceeded. His legislation would require the archivist to “authenticate, count and publish” applications by the states, forcing Congress to act.

“The problem is that they haven’t had a ministerial, clerical mechanism for the archivist to keep a count and report to Congress,” Mr. Arrington said. “I do believe we have crossed that threshold, and it is not congressional discretion — it is a constitutional mandate — that Congress should pick a date and a place for the convention.”

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