I do not believe the Constitution could survive a modern constitutional convention (con-con). So for many years I have been on the front lines of the anti-convention fight. By 1983 a con-con drive had come within two states of the 34 required to trigger a convention. With a profound sense of urgency and the help of many friends we were able create a little breathing space by getting thirteen of the 32 states to withdraw their resolutions.
Again, in 1995 I faced a fierce con-con effort called the Conference of the States and soundly defeated that scheme in fourteen legislative hearings the same year.
The new onslaught
The year 2015 began with con-con bills looming up in many states. Most of them were promoted on the promise of adding a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. I did not realize the extensiveness of this new drive until research specialist Andrew Carver uncovered con-con bills pending in 40 states. His first alert warned us that hearings on four con-con bills in Wyoming were imminent. So by the quick action of Freedom First Society friends, led by coordinator Nancy Dunn, a large number of letters to the Senate Rules Committee arrived just in time to kill Wyoming’s HB 75, HB 121, SJ 4, and HJ 4.
As a seasoned con-con warrior, I had confidence in our ability to defeat these bills in legislative hearings just as we had done in years past. But I soon discovered that the 2015 convention drive was not business as usual. We faced a whole new con-con game. This new drive is far better funded, made up of multiple groups with “conservative” credentials, and based on cleverly twisted constitutional phrases calculated to mislead Republican state legislators.
These combined con-con forces had spent much of the preceding year laying the groundwork for their 2015 legislative offensive. They had met frequently with state lawmakers to assure them that the solution to our bloated, oppressive, federal government was in their hands — that through Article V of the Constitution the states were empowered to call a convention to rein in this federal monster. All the states would need to do is apply to Congress for an “amendments convention” for the stated purpose. Upon the application of two-thirds of the states (34), Congress would be required to call the convention.
Well, that’s a pretty compelling promise, especially when backed up by false statements attributed to our Founding Fathers and by the dishonest assertion that a state could limit and control the deliberations and proposals of a convention.
The skilled con-con artists make highly emotional pleas for action against the very real problems of costly, overgrown government. Although they correctly identify a very serious problem, their amendment “solutions” are the supreme non-sequitur. They go after some implied flaws in the Constitution rather than government violations of the Constitution that are at the root of our overgrown government problem. I marvel that so many intelligent state legislators get caught up in such a senseless answer to Washington’s disregard for the Constitution.
Those who oppose the con-con in Republican states face bills endorsed by the Republican legislative leaders, and in many cases by the Governor. Consequently most of the reports we received on this year’s committee hearings indicated that that they were merely showcase exercises rather than honest evaluations of the issue. In Utah, for example, Senate hearings on HJR 7 allowed no more than two opposing witnesses who were allowed no more than five minutes each. In Oklahoma the opposition to HJR 1018 was allowed no more than two witnesses to speak for only 90 seconds each! Obviously, a “do pass” was pre-determined and the hearings were shameful pretenses.
North Dakota Surprise
In the year 2000 I worked personally with Senator Duane Mutch who took the lead in rescinding North Dakota’s 1979 con-con application. So when six new convention-related bills popped up recently, I contacted the senator (now retired) for help in blocking these bills.
We had friends on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but we discovered that the bills had been assigned to the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee (GVA), where we could not expect committee members to be sufficiently informed to stand against these deceitfully promoted measures.
Off to North Dakota
I could hardly sit back and watch another blindfolded committee fall for the lies and false promises of the Convention of States Project and their associates. So I decided personally to attend the Committee’s hearings and testify. It was a good thing I did, because I became the only opposition witness to take the podium.
At the state capital in Bismarck all the big con-con guns were present: Michael Farris of the Convention of States Project; Nick Dranias of the Compact for America; William H. Fruth of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force; Roman Buhler of The Madison Coalition, and other pro con-con big shots.
The first of the six bills before the Senate GVA Committee was HCR 3015, calling for a constitutional convention for amending the Constitution, ostensibly to add a Balanced Budget Amendment.
Virtually all testimony from the con-con men began with the usual emotional rant concerning the horrible situation in Washington, the gargantuan $18 trillion national debt, our perpetually unbalanced federal budget, and warnings of the imminent collapse of the United States. All diatribes of the con-con lobby followed this pattern, some lasting for ten minutes. The North Dakota House and Senate sponsors did likewise.
Falsified purpose of Article V
The local sponsors were followed by Michael Farris who came to the podium with a ridiculous fairy tale about the purpose of Article V. I have re-printed here exactly as given by Farris colleague, Ken Coccinelli:
“Our Founding Fathers gave the states a method of proposing amendments to our Constitution to rein in the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. Proud Virginian George Mason insisted that one day the federal government would outgrow its bounds, and when that day came, the states would need to have the ability to amend the Constitution to limit the power of the federal government. An Article V Convention of States is the specific recourse he and our Founders put in the Constitution for that purpose.”
Not one word of the above statement is true. It is not simply an outrageous lie, but it is a ludicrous assertion that Mason or anyone else would make such an out of context statement during the Convention of 1787.
My turn at the microphone
When called to the podium, I referred the committee to a news item in which the Nevada Assembly had expunged its 1979 con-con on the basis of fraud. I said, “The Assembly had been promised that a convention could be limited to consider only a Balanced Budget Amendment. Later, when competent legal scholars proved that a convention could not be so limited, the Nevada Assembly realized they had been deceived, so in 1989 they expunged their resolution from the record. The bill before us, HCR 3015, makes the same false promise.”
I added that similar dishonest allusions are in the other five bills to be considered here today. “Since the same principles apply to all six resolutions,” I suggested “that in deference to the Committee’s time, I will oppose the similarities now and not take time to repeat them during each hearing.” The committee chairman, Senator Dick Dever, seemed to appreciate that.
I began by refuting the assertion that George Mason said Article V was created for the purpose of reining in abusive, out-of-control government. “George Mason did not make that statement or anything like it. The Constitution that the Convention had just written already reined in the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. That was the whole purpose of the Constitution. It would have been ludicrous for Mason or anyone else to make such a statement.”
The sovereign principle
I also considered it essential to explain to the Committee the sovereign role of a free people, for unless this were understood, I would not be able to refute several other heresies that were written into their HCR 3015 and commended by the preceding witnesses. I explained that constitutional conventions are uniquely American, based on the reality that in a free country the people are inherently sovereign; meaning superior to the governments they create. Article V, for example, empowers the states merely to apply for a convention, not to set rules or limits on it. And once two-thirds apply Congress has only the authority to set the time and place for it. Why is this so? Because the convention is a sovereign assembly, a higher power than whatever it creates. The state is the creature of a convention and cannot dictate to its creator, the people.
In keeping with this principle I explained that delegates at the Convention of 1787 did not really operate a runaway Convention. “Yes, they violated their mandate from Congress, and ignored the rules of their state resolutions; but as proxies of the people they had every right to create a whole new government. This is what conventions have the power to do. And this is the power future conventions will have because they operate under the sovereign authority of the people.”
State resolutions do not dictate the terms of the convention
As an obvious device to allay the very real threat of an out-of-control con-con and its potential to make radical changes in our form of government, the state resolutions are filled with rules and restrictions intended to limit the convention to specified subjects. By recourse to the sovereign authority of a convention, I told the committee: “All of your precautions are worthless and will be tossed out at the convention door. The state legislature does not dictate to its creator (the convention), and that is what you are now attempting to do.”
Following this, I went through several of the amendments Mr. Farris thought a convention should consider and showed how worthless they would be as restrictions on the power of government. I concluded my testimony with, “Mr. Chairman, not one person in favor of a federal convention has identified a single flaw in the Constitution that needs to be corrected.”
The rebuttal of Mr. Farris
Michael Farris loves to cite his credentials, his great knowledge, his experience before the U.S. Supreme Court, and his extensive travels, which he said would include another trip to Idaho next week.
After bolstering his qualifications, Mr. Farris said, “I must compliment Mr. Fotheringham on his scholarship. He is one of few opponents of our project who understands that the 1787 Convention was not a runaway convention. But regarding his knowledge of George Mason, his scholarship does not go far enough. Had Mr. Fotheringham gone online and searched the University of Chicago Law Journal, he would have found the words which he claims George Mason never made.” Farris then quoted a statement by Mason from the Journal; but it was not even close to the statement he had made earlier about Mason’s reasons for the convention route of Article V.
Farris then asserted that the convention route of Article V was for amendments only, and did not authorize the same kind of convention as the Convention of 1787, and that the states did have the power to set its agenda. He added: “The legislatures have a solemn duty to use the Constitution to restore fiscal responsibility and save the country from certain disaster. That is why our Founding Fathers gave us Article V. Now is the time to use it and the states must have the courage to act now while there is anything left of our country.”
In closing, Mr. Farris took a shot at The John Birch Society and said he knew that “Mr. Fotheringham was engaged in some infighting, or had some problems with the organization and I think he is now affiliated with some other similar group.”
I don’t think that attempt to damage my credibility had the ill effect Farris had expected; for my friend, former senator, Duane Mutch, had served many years in the North Dakota Legislature while a member of the Birch Society, and he was highly respected by his colleagues.
Back at the podium
Unlike the showcase hearings reported in other states, North Dakota treated me with fairness and respect. The chairman, Senator Dever, never denied me the opportunity to return to the podium and rebut the assertions of any con-con advocate.
Back at the podium I said: “Mr. Chairman, with all due respects to Mr. Farris, I did indeed search the website of the University of Chicago Law Journal, and the statement attributed to George Mason is not there. What Mr. Farris quoted from the Journal today is not the same false statement he has been circulating in his testimony here and around the country. He cannot produce evidence that George Mason ever made such a statement, or even hinted that Article V was created to rein in some future out of control federal government.”
The multiple bill strategy
Another scheme unique to this year’s con-con game is the multiple bill strategy. Many states hosted several con-con bills that vary slightly, such as demanding a balanced federal budget, imposing term limits, or just limiting federal power. Passage of any one of these would be counted as a convention call and this provided opportunities for the advocates to quell objections to one bill by offering another as an alternative. The six bills considered in North Dakota were examples of the multiple bill strategy.
No committee votes were taken on the day of the hearings, so I left Bismarck feeling good about my defense of the Constitution and my response to the con-con men who had descended on the state in full force. When leaving the statehouse I stopped to shake hands with Mr. Farris. I was not kindly received.
One week later the North Dakota Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee voted on all six measures. Four of the bills, HCR 3014, HCR 3015, HCR 3016, and HCR 3017, were formal calls for a convention. Three of these con-con bills (HCR 3014, HCR 3016 and HCR 3017) were defeated. The other bill, (HCR 3015), which was not defeated, was all the con-con men really needed. The other two measures heard on the same day were incidental to the convention applications. HB 1138 was for the adoption of an interstate “compact for a balanced budget,” which passed, and HB 1441 was to provide penalties should the delegates depart from the states’ con-con agenda, which also passed. Had both of these last two measures been defeated, it would have had no effect on the result they were after. They wanted a con-con application under any pretext and, after passage of HCR 3015 in the full Senate, they got their wish.
In my opinion, passage of at least one bill is the cunning purpose of the multiple bill strategy. I regard all six of North Dakota’s Constitution-tampering bills to be merely excuses for plunging the Constitution into a modern convention. I testified against each measure on grounds that the Constitution is not defective and that a modern convention would likely destroy what remains of this wonderful United States.
Off to Boise, Idaho
I remembered what Mr. Farris said about going to Idaho next week, so I headed to Boise. I was determined not to lose anything by default — and just as I suspected — two con-con bills awaited hearings at the Idaho statehouse. I met Sunday evening, March 22, with old friends and learned that one of the bills, HB 67, was scheduled for a hearing the next morning.
This was a bill to establish the selection of delegates to a convention, but not specifically a call for one. So I decided to ask my friends to attend the Monday hearing and testify against the bill. On Monday morning my very capable friends stood boldly against HB 67 and the measure was narrowly defeated in a Senate hearing by a vote of 5 to 4. A fantastic development that led to a victory this year in Idaho.
The other bill, H.R. 18, was the actual con-con bill and a real threat. I was prepared to testify against that bill. However, in view of the exciting defeat of HB 67, I was told that the measure would likely not come up and would therefore die upon adjournment, which was only a week away. And that was what happened. Typically, a bill’s sponsor seeks to avoid outright defeat and instead await a better time and climate.
I did not see the angry Mr. Farris in Idaho. Considering his feeble offensive in Bismarck, it is entirely possible that he remained in ND to counter my charges of fraud. With no one around to dispute his fairy tales, he may have won privately the “do pass” motion on HCR 3015. Mr. Farris seems to have an inside track and high-level influence in the Republican states.
It is not business as usual in this year’s con-con fight. We now face a more corrupt and more sophisticated strategy for plunging the United States into constitutional chaos and for inflicting irreparable damage on the freedom and independence of the United States.
More than ever it is essential to build an informed constituency that will create sufficient pressure on state legislators to overcome the influence of the con-con lobby.