Fifty-five percent of Americans believe the national government has too much power, and just 13 percent approve of Congress, according to a recent Gallup Poll. The national debt exceeds $20 trillion. Federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Internal Revenue Service, are running roughshod over ordinary Americans. Career politicians have turned Washington, DC into a cesspool of corruption and malfeasance.
Amidst these dark forces, a bright light is shining through: Proposals to call for a convention of the states to propose amendments to the Constitution, which would return power to the people, are gaining traction in states across the nation.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution lays out the methods by which the Constitution can be amended. Under Article V, amendments can be proposed either by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or by two-thirds of the states. Regardless of which body proposes the amendment, three-fourths of the states must vote to ratify the amendment for it to become part of the Constitution. To date, the Constitution has been amended 27 times (including the Bill of Rights). So far, every single amendment has been proposed by Congress, with none proposed by the states.
It is far-fetched to believe at this point Congress would ever propose an amendment to address the nation’s most vexing problems. Amendments that would require a balanced budget or institute term limits seem unlikely to originate from those who believe they would personally be harmed by such proposals. Hence, there is a great need for a convention of the states to propose such amendments.
The Framers intended states to have a role in amending the Constitution to preserve the balance between the national and state governments. The principle of federalism was sacrosanct to many of the Founding Fathers. As James Madison points out in The Federalist Papers, “If we try the Constitution by its last relation to the authority by which amendments are to be made, we find it neither wholly national nor wholly federal.”
Most Americans support common-sense solutions such as a balanced budget amendment or term limits, but a convention of the states has become a thorny topic due to a concerted misinformation campaign by those opposed to this process. In a new Policy Brief for The Heartland Institute, Heartland Senior Fellow Robert G. Natelson debunks some of the myths commonly associated with a convention of the states. According to Natelson, “activists opposing an amendments convention have reacted by lobbying and placing opinion articles in national media outlets.”
Opposition forces argue a convention of the states could devolve into a free-for-all, with anything and everything on the table, including the provision of an entirely new Constitution. These groups warn the protocols and procedures of a convention of the states are not explicitly stated in Article V, and the process is too mysterious and risky to undertake.
Natelson, a retired professor of law, is director of the Article V Information Center. In “Why the Constitution’s ‘Convention for Proposing Amendments’ Is a Convention of the States,” he deftly weaves through the history of interstate conventions, from the Founding Era to present day.
Natelson explains that in colonial America, “the frequency with which conventions of colonies and states met – on average, every three or four years – rendered them a very familiar part of American political life.” Many of the Founding Fathers attended multiple conventions of the states, and they viewed these political gatherings as indispensable to forming and maintaining a functional government.
As James Madison succinctly stated, Article V “equally enables the general and the state governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side, or the other.” Despite Madison’s astute observation, the national government, to date, holds a monopoly on the amendment proposal process.
As momentum toward a convention of the states increases, so does fearmongering against it. Common arguments include the likelihood of a runaway convention, although this is easily prevented with a set of rules that limit the scope of the convention. A set of rules was recently written at the Arizona Balanced Budget Planning Convention. Nineteen states attended that historic convention, which was held to produce a set of nonbinding rules for a future convention of the states proposing an actual amendment.
Another oft-cited argument against a convention of the states is the possibility of small states representing a minority of the population pushing an amendment opposed by large states. As Natelson points out, this is highly unlikely because “there are too many large and small states on both sides of the red/blue divide and too many bicameral states in which the legislative chambers have different interests and different majorities.” Furthermore, Natelson demonstrates why this is a moot point because “in some states, a single powerful lawmaker can block an application favored by majorities in both houses.”
Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the Constitution was ratified. The Framers worked diligently to create a limited government based on principles such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances. The American Experiment was unlike anything the world had ever witnessed. In order for the “shining city on the hill” to endure and thrive in the twenty-first century, difficult problems must be addressed. The most effective method to solve these entrenched problems is for a convention of the states to sidestep Congress and propose amendments that prevent deficit spending, impose term limits, and restore the balance of power between the national and state governments.