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'The Constitution in Jeopardy' explores the potential threat of a new constitutional convention

The Constitution in Jeopardy by Russ Feingold and Peter Prindiville
Public Affairs
The Constitution in Jeopardy by Russ Feingold and Peter Prindiville.

Republican and conservative activists in Wisconsin are part of a growing group of politicians calling for a new constitutional convention that could fundamentally reshape the U.S. Constitution. The movement has been quietly growing for more than a decade and could allow a group of politicians to completely rewrite our founding document.

A new book called The Constitution in Jeopardy outlines the motives of this movement and the potential ramifications of such a convention. It’s authored by former U.S. Senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold, along with Peter Prindiville, a non-resident fellow at the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.

While the movement is rising, this push for a constitutional convention is nothing new. Feingold and Prindiville explain that the proposal began in the 60s during the Warren Court’s Appointment hearings, the infamous court that expanded civil rights and the federal government's powers. It was reignited again in the 80s, throughout the Balanced Budget Amendment, which ultimately failed.

"Then, during President Obama's first term, the movement really found new life and really quite radically expanded its goals. And so we can trace this longer history back to the 60s, but it really found a newfound momentum during the Obama administration," says Feingold.

The goals of the movement were further illustrated at a mock convention in Williamsburg circa 2016. The convention voted for an amendment that reduces the federal government's power and an amendment to limit federal agencies. These laws would affect current issues like the government's COVID-19 response, transportation legislation, and the effect of the Environmental Protection Agency on climate change cases.

"Probably their favorite is they want it to be so that 30 of the states could override, eliminate, nullify any federal congressional law or any regulation. So basically taking us back to before the constitution to something more like what was called the Articles of Confederation, which miserably failed to allow us to run this country," says Feingold.

The constitutional convention itself is something spelled out in Article Five of the Constitution, but it's never happened in U.S. history. The only constitutional convention ever held was in 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was written.

“If two thirds of the states, that is 34 states right now, apply for a convention…Congress is obligated to call for a convention where we believe they can consider essentially anything to change the constitution,” says Feingold.

Prindiville explains there are legal and practical setbacks with the proposed convention's follow-through. One of the most prominent proponents is the lack of limitations set within the convention. He notes that without constraints, an overwhelming amount of reforms could be drafted.

“The other concern is who's actually doing the drafting? Who would be there? You know, in law, the most powerful person is the person that holds the pen. And so it's important to think about who would actually be delegates at such a convention, the Constitution provides no guidance and in that void has rushed new theories about who should be delegates,” says Prindiville.

Feingold and Prindiville wrote their book to educate Americans about this movement, because they believe those behind the movement benefit from keeping it hidden.

“They have a tremendous amount of funding... and they want to get a huge advantage and head start in this thing. And so to keep it quiet is in their interest, taking the lid off of it and letting America know what's being attempted, is in the interest of most Americans," says Feingold.

Prindiville says Wisconsin had passed legislation for this convention, which is controlled by the Republican party. He also notes that the governor does not have to sign off on this decision.

“Our goal here is to issue a warning to concerned citizens about this effort and encourage concerned citizens and concerned state legislators to examine this effort very closely. And to examine it with a cool head,” says Prindiville.


Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.
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