Some Illinois lawmakers want to see U.S. call a constitutional amendments convention
Three Republican lawmakers plan to represent Illinois at an event in Williamsburg, Virginia, later this week that's sponsored by a political action group that wants to trigger a constitutional amendments convention within the next three years.
State Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, whose House district includes parts of Bloomington-Normal and eastern McLean County, is calling the invitation from the Convention of States group an honor.
"This is a big deal: This isn't just a bunch of local activists. This is the whole thing; it's a national organization," Caulkins said in an interview. "Our whole group will get together to go through a process (of) what it would look like, sound like, and how it would work to amend the U.S. Constitution."
Caulkins' invitation from Convention of States (COS) to the simulation event came alongside those of fellow state Reps. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, and Tom Weber, R-Lake Villa. The event, called a "Simulated Article V Convention," is the second in the group's history; the last was in 2016.
"It's very lifelike — it's being conducted just as how things would happen if we were to get to get to an Article V convention," Caulkins said.
Attendees are, essentially, live-action role players tasked with proposing, crafting and "voting" on amendments to the founding document. While the Aug. 2-4 simulation is just that — a model — Convention of States and its supporters want to turn it into reality by 2026.
The group has drawn criticism due to its founders' ties to the former Tea Party and funding from the billionaire Koch Brothers, among other things. Proponents tout efforts to trigger a convention as a means of bypassing political deadlock and "reigning in" Congress; skeptics describe these efforts as dangerous — a path to a constitutional crisis.
Statewide, 400-plus Convention of States volunteers — and sympathetic-to-the-cause lawmakers — are said to be the largest corps in the country working to make Illinois one of 34 states to pass a resolution in the General Assembly calling for an Article V convention.
Whether these efforts are ultimately successful or not, Illinois-based political scientists who spoke with WGLT said the signaling accomplished via aligning with the Convention of States movement could worsen an already-growing political divide within the state.
"There's no question that there are networks of people out there who are deeply, passionately supportive of these ideas — and they have an outsized influence in certain areas," said Lane Crothers, a political science professor at Illinois State University. "It really seems to matter more the degree to which it creates zones or pockets where these ideas become dominant than it does in any sense of any kind of long-term, actual transformation of the political system."
So far, efforts to transform the political system via a convention have been unsuccessful.
'An impossible dream'
"For the last several years, I've filed their (Convention of States) resolution," Halbrook said in an interview. "We hope for a committee hearing, we hope to get them to a committee floor, but that never seems to happen."
Yet Halbrook said he keeps filing the resolution — knowing it's unlikely to move forward — on behalf of his constituents.
"Next to gun issues — protecting the Second Amendment — this Convention of States issue ranks right up there with engagement from constituents," he said.
Southern Illinois University visiting professor and former chancellor John Jackson, who's been watching, researching and teaching about state and local government for more than five decades, said "this is what we in political science call 'symbolic politics.'"
"They know it's not going anywhere, really, and whatever momentum they appear to have in (a) press release or a story is an impossible dream," he said. "None of that's going to happen, but ... they get some grassroots support that gets supporters to rally to their side."
Grassroots effort is a key component of the COS model: The national organization relies on state-level organizers and volunteers to get petition signatures and lobby local lawmakers to file resolutions that signal support for calling an Article V convention.
David Winters, a native of central Illinois, is the state director for Illinois Convention of States. He said the Prairie State's team is one of the largest in the country, with 71 "district captains" and 400-some volunteers on the books.
"I think our greatest challenge is that people don't know about us," Winters said. "There's 12 1/2 million people in Illinois and our goal is to double the number of petition signers from about 75,000 to 150,000 in a short period of time," Winters said. That's "because when you sit down with a state senator or state representative, they want to know how many people in their district support HJR3 — House Joint Resolution Three."
Halbrook described his efforts to garner support for the resolutions he's filed that call for an amendments convention as ones that have received bipartisan support in the past — although he admitted that's true "not (for) the current one, but in previous general assemblies."
HJR3 filed in January of this year did not have a single Democratic sponsor, but has, in later months, received support from — among others — new, conservative state representatives Dennis Tipsword and Bill Hauter, whose districts include Woodford and Tazewell counties.
"I tell people all the time that are very down on Illinois: Why would I ever quit believing and doing what I'm doing when every session, we tend to pick up a couple of votes for our resolution?" Winters said.
True to Convention of States messaging, HJR3 calls for an amendments convention for the purposes of "proposing amendments to the Constitution of the United States that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress."
"I'm not surprised these things all fit together," said SIU's Jackson. "Some of these things are very, very vague — and all of it's the reason why it's not going anywhere."
After HJR3 was filed in January, it was assigned to the Rules Committee; it has seen no additional movement, although nearly 30 Republican lawmakers have added their sponsorships in the months since.
'The kind of social and political discomfort we have right now'
What's currently happening in Illinois and with the Convention of States movement [such that it is] is not new.
According to a report from the policy research arm of Congress — the Congressional Research Service — pushes for an Article V convention date back to at least the 1960s and "vigorous" campaigns to call such a convention continued through the 1980s.
"With the failure of these efforts, interest in the Article V Convention alternative declined for more than 20 years, but over the past decade, there has been a gradual resurgence of attention to and support for a convention," the report noted in 2016.
Or, as ISU's Crothers said, "these things have been around forever."
Still, a resurgence of interest — and millions of dollars — pumped into these efforts does indicate at least one thing beyond political posturing.
"It does, inevitably, signal the kind of social and political discomfort we have right now," Crothers said. "We have areas of the United States where there are very different sets of political and social values. So, these tensions percolate regularly and there's no easy mechanism within the American system to try and balance them."
Convention of States proponents argue their way is easy — if only enough people get on board. Yet constitutional scholars of every stripe have voiced concerns about "runaway" conventions, the unknowns of calling such a convention for the first time in the country's history.
"I don't see how it would be knowable or controllable once a convention got called," said Jackson said. "These vague goals make it impossible to predict."
Former Supreme Court justice and conservative Antonin Scalia was among the Convention of States' critics; now, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum is an adviser to the group, and its advocates include right-wing media hosts Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity and Mark Levine.
Winters, along with others, said he's not worried about a convention getting derailed or hijacked or otherwise going awry.
"The eyes of the world will be on that meeting: When the eyes of the world are looking at every move, that a state's gathering or convention has to restrain the federal government, I think there's a lot less room for nefarious activity," he said.
But in order to have these kinds of problems, there would first have to be an actual convention called. Crothers, echoing Jackson in a way, said that's an unlikely outcome.
"You run into the fundamental political problem that Americans vote for the exact opposite things that these people complain about," he said. "The federal government basically spends money on like, five things: Almost all of its money gets spent on defense, Social Security, Medicare, some amount of social welfare and interest on the debt — and that's where basically all the money goes. And Americans like that stuff."
The lasting impact on Illinois, Crothers posited, is less likely to be an actual debate surrounding a convention and amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and more likely to be a deeper engraining of political divide.
Jackson, for instance, said he wasn't surprised to see Halbrook's involvement with the Convention of States movement: The Shelbyville Republican is known as part of "the Eastern Bloc," Jackson said, that was responsible for promoting the idea that downstate Illinois should "secede" [somehow] from Chicago.
"There's no question that there are networks of people out there who are deeply passionately supportive of these ideas. And they have this amount of outsized influence in certain areas... they tend to be relatively rural and isolated from bigger communities and within their communities, these sets of ideas become very powerful," Crothers said. "They never have any bigger success in the sense that they don't actually split up the state. But they do end up creating zones where laws and rules get enforced in ways that are fundamentally sympathetic to these attitudes."
Come Aug. 7, state representatives Caulkins and Halbrook plan to bring the Convention of States message to Bloomington-Normal as the guests of a "grassroots patriots" group.
"I guess one of the big reasons to go and do this — it does nothing if we just go and look out for ourselves," Caulkins said. "I'm looking forward to being an active participant and bringing it back home."