Conservatives' Radical New Project to Upend the Federal Government

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 4 2013 2:55 PM

Conservatives' Improbable New 'Convention of States' Project

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Sen. Ron Johnson really doesn't like his boss.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Grand Hyatt in downtown D.C. is like any other hotel designed to host conventions—huge and as inoffensive as possible. In its basement, advocacy groups like the Family Research Council and Americans United for Life set up booths, giving away run-of-the-mill swag like branded frisbees, beer koozies, pens, and sunglasses. They and a host of other conservative groups, along with state lawmakers and corportate interests, are gathered at the Hyatt this week for a conference hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Consider this the more level-headed, policy-oriented brother of a Tea Party rally. ALEC, for those unfamiliar, is a conglomeration of corporate interests and conservative state lawmakers that works to influence which laws get passed at the state level. The group, which supports state "stand your ground" laws, has lost a host of powerful corporate members since the death of Trayvon Martin.

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In the basement ballroom, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson made the case to a luncheon crowd that despite the federal government's recent failings, Democrats are still winning the budget narrative with Americans. "They are giving away candy, and it is tasty stuff," he said. "We've got the drill and the Novocain to fix the cavity."

At this year's conference, ALEC isn't just working to promote conservative state laws, but to dismantle the federal government's control over the states. Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, spoke at an afternoon workshop to sell his and ALEC's latest project: calling for a "convention of states." The way it would work, state lawmakers would use Article V of the Constitution to introduce a suite of constitutional amendments with the goal of severely restricting federal power.

Citizens for Self-Governance, Meckler's group heading up the Convention of States Project, described the endeavor thusly:

By calling a convention of states, we can stop the federal spending and debt spree, the power grabs of the federal courts, and other misuses of federal power. The current situation is precisely what the Founders feared, and they gave us a solution we have a duty to use.

In his new book The Liberty Amendments, conservative talk show host Mark Levin argues that Article V is an "emergency cord" of sorts to restore jurisdiction to the states. To pull that cord, two-thirds of state legislatures—34 of them—would have to meet and propose amendments on the same subject. Each amendment would then have to be approved by three-quarters of the states to be ratified. And therein lies one of the big problems with the project, aside from the small issue of constitutional interpretation—only 27 state legislatures are Republican-controlled.

But shouldn't conservatives be more focused on winning national elections anyway? Michael Farris, a states' rights advocate, made the case that, in order to build grassroots support for Republican campaigns in 2014 and 2016, conservative groups like ALEC must first produce tangible policy results. To rebuild the federal government in its image, ALEC must first destroy it.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.

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