A funny thing happened on the way to Maryland’s becoming the fifth state to demand an amendment convention to overturn Citizens United, et al. Our effort was derailed, to our surprise, by a coalition of liberal groups — some of whom officially want an amendment on this topic.
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 I’m 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.
One possibility would be for the different groups to meet and discuss their differences, and try to find a unifying approach that diverse factions could support. This may be difficult in light of the intransigence of opposing strategists and the aftermath of what many activists see as a betrayal of the cause.
Remarkably, a month after the upset in Maryland, a very similar sequence of events occurred in New Hampshire. There, WolfPac was leading a pro-convention effort and was pleased that in a Republican-led legislature, the New Hampshire House passed a strong pro-convention resolution. But then — probably because of a similar, though unconfirmed, intervention by anti-convention groups — the state Senate instead passed an extremely weak resolution. That resolution simply called on the New Hampshire legislature to form a commission to study the problem. That, no doubt, struck fear in the hearts of amendment opponents!
These sequences of events are, I believe, deeply concerning and disturbing. If the movement to amend cannot develop a working unity, but rather sinks deeper into a quagmire of quarreling factions, it will be difficult to make progress toward overturning Citizens United and passing related reforms.