It is clear to any observer that the Federal government has grown to an untenable size, and that it has become increasingly more abusive of its powers. Something clearly needs to change, yet it seems unlikely that anything will substantively be improved in the near future, at least in Washington.
According to some, Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides the best solution. Article V provides two methods for proposing and adopting amendments to the Constitution. The first method, which is far more commonly known, requires that a proposed amendment be passed by two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress, then sent to the states – 75 percent of which must approve the amendment for it to be ratified. Article V also states that on direct application to the Federal Government from two-thirds of all state legislatures a Convention of States must be called for the purpose of proposing amendments. These amendments must be passed by two-thirds of convention delegates, before being sent to all states for ratification – just as in the more common method. Amendments proposed and ratified in this manner are to be considered just as valid as those ratified in the first method.
A number of well-known figures have recently voiced their support for a movement that would call a Convention of States to propose constitutional amendments – including U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and conservative talk-show hosts Glenn Beck and Mark Levin.
Levin has done more than simply talk about it on air – he is the author of “The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic,” a book on the issue that debuted at No. 1 on Amazon. In it, Levin argues why the Article V Convention strategy may provide the safest and most viable way to reign in the federal government. Several grass-roots organizations have sprung up, all advocating state legislatures submitting applications to call a Convention of States. The proposed topics or amendments are diverse, from a balanced budget amendment to amendments establishing term limits for Supreme Court justices.
I recently spoke with Mike Westrich, the NC Coalitions Director, and Gary Lyons, NC legislative liaison with Convention of States, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance. The Convention of States organization seeks to educate voters and legislators about the possibilities of an Article V Convention, and support legislative action in adopting applications. The organization plans to use the same application for all states, to remove any questions about how applications are counted. More than the required 34 states have submitted applications in the past, yet there is controversy about whether it requires that a Convention of States be called, due to differences in applications. The proposed application here calls for a Convention with the purpose of proposing amendments to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, to impose fiscal restraints, and to limit terms for members of Congress and other government officials. The application has already been passed in three states, and is currently being debated or discussed in several more state legislatures.
According to Westrich, any movement must start with public knowledge and education, so he has set out on a crusade to speak to groups of interested voters across North Carolina and canvass their support. It seems that public awareness of the issue is increasing steadily. A recent informal poll conducted on our website showed that 70 percent of respondents were aware of the Article V provision in question, and were also aware of a movement supporting a Convention of States.
The Article V provision has also gained notoriety among NC lawmakers. A group of 17 House Republicans jointly sponsored a recent resolution that would establish a committee to discuss potentially submitting an application to the federal government.
Not all conservatives, however, have as positive a view on the issue. Notable concerns that many have voiced include the potential for a “runaway convention” that would propose amendments contrary to the people’s wishes, as well as concerns that a Convention of States has never really been used, and so there may be some procedural confusion. Additionally, some have stated that it may be inadvisable to “open up the Constitution” and make changes.
Upon hearing these concerns, Westrich was quick to point out that there have been numerous conventions to amend state Constitutions, as well as regular conventions to decide policy issues for political organizations. A national Convention of States would follow similar rules, and so would likely avoid procedural concerns, he said. He also observed that delegates would likely be bound to follow their state’s direction. “We haven’t seen any concerns of a runaway Electoral College,” he said.
An article published in The Huffington Post hypothesized that a convention could be “hijacked” and used to propose amendments that support a progressive agenda – such as one redefining corporate personhood. I asked Gary Lyons, the group’s NC legislative liaison, what he thought the chances were that something similar could happen. “Our founders were brilliant, they knew they had to set a high bar,” he remarked, explaining that the convention would not be a “Constitutional Convention” where the whole document was modified, but would just be a convention for the purpose of proposing amendments, which would then have to be ratified by 75 percent of state legislatures, just like any other Constitutional amendment.
As each state delegation would only have one vote, delegates would have to discuss and agree on how to cast that one vote, and the amendment would have to not just pass by a supermajority at the convention, but be ratified by 75 percent of all states – minimizing the likelihood that radical amendments would be able to pass. “I think, ultimately, the only amendments that will get through are those that have been a part of public discourse for a long time…things like term limits, a balanced budget.” Lyons said.
Regardless of whether you personally support the movement, it is increasingly becoming an important topic among policy wonks, politicians, and voters alike. The federal government has overstepped its bounds, and Congress seems unlikely to change its ways. This method, at least, bypasses Congress.
“The second clause of Article V – empowering the states – is necessary, because left to Congress, no amendment of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive” wrote founding father George Mason. The federal government’s slide towards tyranny and its disregard of the Constitution has conservatives searching for a solution. Many believe that it’s found in Article V of the very document that is threatened.
This article was written by Civitas intern Matthew Young.