Reason for Article V Convention   Leave a comment

You know how sometimes you start to research a project and you find a treasure trove of information scattered across the web? Although I found a lot of enthusiasm both for and against, I gravitated to Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater Institute for discussion by cooler heads, but the Convention of the States website has developed into a good resource since I last checked it out.

It should be recognized that the writing of the United States Constitution was an act of rebellion. It was a necessary act because the Articles of Confederation were not working and did not allow a mechanism for amendment. Shay’s Rebellion was just the tip of the iceberg of the frustration that was fomenting in the 13 states. The Articles were designed by people in the midst of a war against the only government they had ever known and thus was only one step back from anarchy. No government sounds good after you’ve lived with tyranny for a while, but it turns out to be rather hard on society. It also turns out that “virtually no government” is not a great improvement over no government at all. Thus, the US Constitution, which provided for limited government under the consent of the governed. It was a brilliant idea, but it wasn’t a perfect idea.

With remarkable insight, our Founders perceived a day when the Constitution would need amendment so they set forth a provision for how to do that. Oddly, they didn’t think allowing the sort of convention that they were in the midst of was a good idea. A wide-open convention of that sort could easily “run away”, they saw, so instead, they provided for a limited-scope convention, attended by state-chosen delegates, to address specific subject matters. This does not mean Article V cannot be abused, but that the possibility must be viewed against the clear and present danger to individual rights and freedom from doing nothing in the face of an out-of-control federal government.

Polls show that a growing number of Americans are deeply concerns by the inability of all three branches of the federal government to operate within their constitutional or financial limits. The Constitution needs amendment, either to clarify the scope of federal power or to impose restrictions upon its exercise with the ultimate goal of reviving the Founders’ view of the federal government as a fiscally responsible entity that protects human liberties.

Article V of the Constitution provides that either Congress or a convention of delegates may propose amendments for the states to ratify. A convention arrives when two-thirds (34) states send applications to Congress direction it to call such a convention. An amendment must be approved by three-quarters (38) states before it can become effective, regardless of whether it is proposed by Congress or by the states.

Our Founders had just experienced the endless debate that was Congress under the Articles of Confederation. They recognized that Congress might become irresponsible or corrupt and refuse to proposed needed changes, particularly if those changes might restrain the power of Congress. The state-application-for-convention process allows states to curb federal abuses by their own initiative.

And aren’t we living in those times today? States have sent hundreds of convention applications to Congress over the years, primarily arising from widespread efforts to solve serious problems that the federal government seemed unable or unwilling to solve. None of these applications succeeded in triggering a convention because usually Congress finally felt compelled to act just before the threshold for a convention was met.

A mid-19th century campaign to call a convention to reconcile North and South over the issues of slavery was blocked by politicians more interested in debate than solutions. The Civil War imposed unconstitutional reconstruction upon the South that has had widespread repercussions on the western states ever since.

In the Progressive Era, a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign focused on corruption in state legislatures caused efforts to call a convention to force direct election of US Senators. This movement was then torpedoed by fear-mongering about the “runaway constitutional convention” that would ensue if Congress didn’t act. The Senate finally yielded and submitted the 17th amendment to the states. The problem of corruption in state legislatures then shifted to corruption in the Senate.

The 20th century balance budget movement was torpedoed by the same fears. When Congress failed to pass an amendment to restrict its own power, if left Congress still unable to balance its budget, resulting in a loss of political legitimacy and a federal debt now almost as large as the entire annual economy.

I think it’s important to understand how this process was meant to work, so that we’re not confused by the propaganda.

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