At noon on Tuesday, September 12, 71 delegates gathered in the chamber of the State House of Representatives in Phoenix, Arizona. A sign near the entrance featured an official logo that bore a gold-plated inscription: Article V: History in the Making.
Nominated by 19 Republican state legislatures, the men and women in Phoenix—all of whom, the Arizona Republic said, “appeared white”— assembled to organize a convention of the states, a never-before-tried method for amending the US Constitution.
“Some are saying about us, ‘They are no Hamilton. They are no Jefferson,’” said Kelly Townsend, the Arizona state representative who served as chair of the Phoenix convention, speaking to a reporter. “No, we are not. But we are the stewards now. They found the courage to stand up, and now it’s our turn.”
The US Constitution is the most difficult to alter of any in the world. Article V lays out two ways to propose amendments: with the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, or by a convention of states called by Congress upon the request of two-thirds of the states. Whichever way it’s put forward, an amendment then has to be approved by three-quarters of the states—either by special conventions or by both houses of the state legislatures (save for Nebraska, which has a single chamber). The first method for proposing an amendment—the one that begins with Congress—has been employed all 27 times the Constitution has been changed. In the nearly two and a half centuries since the Constitution was ratified, the second method—a convention of states—has never been used.
As its name suggests, the purpose of the Balanced Budget Amendment Planning Convention in Phoenix was to set the ground rules for a future convention that would consider only that single amendment. Pitched as a reasonable constraint on the profligate spending habits of Congress, and predicated on long-debunked arguments equating the fiscal responsibilities of a nation with those of a household, the balanced-budget amendment has been a decades-long obsession of the conservative movement. Its passage would result in the almost immediate contraction of the federal government, whose expenditures could no longer exceed revenues in any given year. Powerless to borrow its way out of a recession, the government would have to cut spending at the very moment it was most needed. The result would be catastrophic.
Much of the movement’s momentum comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-financed behemoth that pushes conservative legislation through state legislatures. ALEC’s preferred mode of politicking—writing model bills and finding compliant lawmakers to introduce them—makes it well suited to coordinate action in dozens of state capitals. Meanwhile, the State Policy Network, a collection of 64 think tanks in 49 states—funded by the Koch, Coors, DeVos, and Walton families—produces op-eds and other promotional materials that tout the need for such a convention.