Critics of an Article V amendments convention claim the states could unleash a runaway “constitutional convention” by exercising their Article V powers. But the states do not have authority under Article V to call a “constitutional convention.” Indeed, the words “constitutional convention” appear nowhere in the Constitution.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution gives a supermajority of state legislatures the power to force Congress to call a convention to restrain an overreaching federal government through targeted constitutional amendments. There is no reason to worry about a “runaway” convention because three-fourths of the states—38 states—would have to ratify whatever amendment might be proposed. Moreover, nothing in the nation’s history justifies fear of a “runaway” convention.
It is a myth that the U.S. Constitution was born of a “runaway” convention. The truth is the Convention of 1787 had an incredibly broad mandate from Congress—to establish “in these states a firm national government . . . [and] render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union.” In proposing the Constitution to amend the Articles of Confederation, the 1787 convention stayed well within the congressional call, as well as within the commissions of most delegates.
Although the Articles required unanimous ratification for alterations to it, and the Constitution only required ratification by nine states, the Constitution was only binding on those states that ratified it. While not every state in the Confederation initially ratified the Constitution, all of them ultimately did. In the end, the Constitution displaced the Articles of Confederation on the very terms prescribed by the Articles.
Arizona and five other states are considering use of their power under Article V of the U.S. Constitution to initiate an amendments convention. With the federal debt exceeding $14 trillion, I believe nothing short of state-initiated constitutional reform will stop the impending fiscal train wreck.
The power of the states to call an amendments convention is no greater than the power of Congress to propose amendments. Both amendment powers operate within the existing limitations of the Constitution. Any proposed constitutional amendment, whether arising from Congress or from an amendments convention, must still be ratified by 38 states.
Opposition to states using their Article V power boils down to a belief that Congress is more trustworthy than the states when it comes to proposing constitutional amendments. I disagree. Congress is driving our nation toward a financial cliff. The states must take the wheel.
Nick Dranias holds the Clarence J. and Katherine P. Duncan Chair for Constitutional Government and is director of the Joseph and Dorothy Donnelly Moller Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute.
The original version of this story was posted online on Feb. 20, 2011.