Paranoid Park

Earlier this year, I wrote about the grassroots effort to add a 28th amendment to the United States Constitution specifying that money is not a form of free speech and that corporations are not people. Dysfunction in the American political system will not end until the Constitution officially recognizes the separation of billionaire and state; therefore, the passage of such an amendment is absolutely necessary to prevent the United States from becoming a permanent oligarchy.

Four states—Vermont, California, Illinois and New Jersey—have already passed resolutions calling for an Article V convention to enact this amendment. Maryland was to have been the fifth state to pass such a resolution, but the effort ran into a very unusual snag, as Bob Guldin notes:

In brief, here’s what happened. In late 2014 and into 2015, a small but hard-working set of groups and individuals lobbied the Maryland legislature persistently and effectively for a resolution that would officially call for a convention of states under Article V of the U.S. Constitution. The effort was led by Get Money Out-Maryland, a Baltimore-based group then affiliated with WolfPac. Also active were the Maryland Committee to Amend (of which [Guldin is] a member) and other multi-issue progressive groups.

The resolution acquired a sizeable number of cosponsors in both the state Senate and House of Delegates. After some wrangling over the document’s wording, a strong resolution that would add Maryland to the list of states “applying” to Congress for an Article V convention passed the relevant Senate committee 7-4, and then passed the entire Senate 29-18.

By this time it was getting very late in the legislative session (which by law had to end April 13), but prospects looked good for passage in the House. But when it came up for consideration by the House Rules Committee, the whole project blew up!

The committee amended the resolution and significantly weakened it. Instead of an application to Congress that requires Congress to act, it became a resolution that just requests Congress to pass an amendment in the traditional manner and send it to the states for ratification.

What caused this turnabout? In the two days between Senate passage and House hearing, a set of seven advocacy organizations put out and circulated a letter to the Maryland legislature, opposing the original pro-convention resolution, and warning of dire consequences if a convention is in fact convened. See the text of the letter here. The groups were the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Issue One, People For the American Way, Public Citizen and USAction.

Because several of these organizations are known for their good-government stances, including efforts to reduce the influence of big moneyed interests in U.S. politics, their statement carried considerable weight. It appears that their opposition spooked a number of legislators sympathetic to the drive to amend.

On April 13, the very last day of the session, the House took up the weakened version of the resolution. It passed 89-49. But we now had two substantially different resolutions (the House version and the Senate version) on the same topic. The Senate refused to concur in the House changes, no conference committee met, and both versions of the resolution therefore died.

Those of us who had supported the original resolution were angry and disappointed. (One can imagine that some of the leaders of the anti-convention groups were very pleased, though we have reliable information that some of the more grassroots members of those groups were dismayed at being required by national leaders to turn on their former allies.)

Where does that leave the drive to amend in Maryland? While advocates of the pro-convention resolution will undoubtedly return to the legislature with a strong lobbying effort in 2016, we will have a hard time passing it over the vocal opposition of these “liberal good-government” groups.

The anti-Article V convention groups raise concerns about the possibility of a runaway convention, quoting the late Supreme Court Justices Warren Burger and Arthur Goldberg (as well as, oddly enough, Justice Antonin Scalia) on the risks of such an event happening. These groups are wrong. While the concerns about a runaway convention are somewhat understandable, they are outweighed by the greater threat posed by not having an Article V convention to enact a 28th amendment restricting money in politics, and thus having billionaires seize more and more control over our political system.

Fear of a runaway Constitutional convention doesn’t justify not having a convention. In the thirty-nine years since the Supreme Court effectively legalized bribery in the Buckley v. Valeo ruling, the concerns of average Americans have been ignored on Capitol Hill. An Article V convention to pass a 28th amendment stating that money is not speech and corporations are not people is the only feasible way to fix our broken democracy. Let’s hope the authors of the anti-Article V convention letter reconsider their opposition.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.