In 2014, Vermont became the first state in the nation to call for a constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United. But many lawmakers now say it’s a dangerous path to go down, and the Vermont Senate voted Tuesday to rescinded it 2014 resolution.
Amending the U.S. Constitution is, by design, one of the most difficult political procedures in American democracy. Article V of the Constitution lays out a path for individual states to lead that process, however, and it says that if 34 state legislatures petition Congress for an amendment, then the country shall hold a constitutional convention to consider the proposal.
Back in 2014, Vermont lawmakers decided it was perhaps the most expeditious way to overturn a landmark Supreme Court case, known as Citizens United, that allowed for unlimited spending on political campaigns.
Now, they’re having a change of heart.
“There’s a lot of risk, and the more I looked into this, the bottom line was the risks were too great,” says Chittenden County Sen. Chris Pearson.
Pearson says he thinks Citizen United has been deeply damaging to the democratic process. But he says the rules that would govern the constitutional convention are “murky at best.”
He says it’s likely that a Republican-controlled Congress would wield enormous control over the process. And he says a convention could open up the door to amendments related to abortion or voting rights.
“You could have all sorts of issues that are the cause of the extreme right right now, which has a lot of power in this country, coming up for debate at a Constitutional convention,” Pearson says.
Jay Riestenberg, media strategist at Common Cause, a national organization trying to limit the role of money in politics, says the goal of overturning Citizens United is a worthy one. But he says state legislatures, the majority of which are controlled by Republicans, would likely control the agenda at a constitutional convention.
“And it’s very, very unlikely that a convention controlled by those legislatures would really do anything productive on money in politics, on voting rights, on democracy in general,” Riestenberg says.
Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons was one of seven Senate lawmakers to vote against rescinding the 2014 resolution.
“The founders saw this as an opportunity for the states to come together and talk about single or multiple issues and put together a constitutional amendment from the grassroots up,” Lyons says.
Lyons says she heard similar concerns about the resolution when lawmakers held their first vote.
“We had the same deliberation in 2014, and now it’s coming back because of fear,” Lyons says. “People should not be afraid of democracy.”
The Vermont House will now decide whether it wants to rescind the resolution as well, and Vermont’s decision could be a critical one. Thirty-three states have petitioned Congress for constitutional amendments — most for a balanced budget amendment, as opposed to overturning Citizens United. And some believe that a 34th could trigger a convention, even if the state petitions aren’t all calling for the same proposed amendment.