America’s Constitution allows states to call for a convention to push constitutional amendments. There’s a serious effort underway to convene just such a meeting.  If it succeeds, it would be a remarkable assertion of states’ combined power. Amendments put forth in such a convention could provide the much needed check on America’s federal government which has grown too big and overbearing on state rights.

But some argue this could be dangerous. Here are excerpts from a recent article in The Economist, describing the risks involved…

America might see a new constitutional convention in a few years

If it did, that would be dangerous thing

The 55 delegates to America’s first and so-far-only constitutional convention had hammered out compromises on the separation of powers, apportionment of seats in the legislature and the future of the slave trade. But on September 15th 1787 George Mason, a plantation owner from Virginia, rose to his feet to object.

Article V of the draft text laid out two paths by which future amendments could be proposed. Congress could either propose them itself, or it could summon a convention of representatives from the states to propose them. Mason warned that if the federal government were to become oppressive, Congress would be unlikely to call a convention to correct matters. To protect the people’s freedom, he argued, convening power should instead be vested in the states. Should two-thirds of their legislatures call for a convention, Congress would have to accede to their demand: a convention they should have.

The constitution was signed two days later, with Article V changed as Mason had suggested. Since then 33 amendments have been proposed, with 27 subsequently ratified, a process which requires approval in three-quarters of the states. Whether the issue was great (abolishing slavery) or small (changing the date of presidential inaugurations), all 33 of the proposals came from Congress. Mason’s mechanism for change driven by state legislatures has never been used. Even politically informed Americans often have no idea it exists.

That could soon change. In recent years the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force (BBATF)—a shoestring group that received just $43,000 in donations in 2015—has been campaigning with great success for such an “Article V” convention.

There are now 27 states in which the legislatures have passed resolutions calling for a convention that would propose a balanced-budget amendment. The two-thirds-of-the-states threshold for calling a convention is 34. And, as it happens, there are seven states which have not yet called for a convention to propose a balanced-budget amendment, but in which Republicans control both houses of the legislature.

The earliest all seven could plausibly make the call is 2019, because Montana’s legislature is not in session again until then. Bill Fruth, a co-founder of the BBATF, says that by that point he hopes to have the other six in the bag. If he does, then a convention would be on the cards. If his efforts falter, a bigger push is waiting in the wings. Called the Convention of States (CoS), it promises amendments on three topics: a balanced budget, limiting the federal government’s power and establishing term limits for members of Congress. Led by Mark Meckler, a former Tea Party activist, the CoS got its first resolution passed in 2014. But it has grown fast. It is far better-funded than the BBATF and claims 2.2m volunteers across the country; its advisers include Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, two influential former Republican senators. Its resolution has now passed in 12 states.

A larger group of critics, whose strange bedfellows include the Birchers, the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause, has focused on the risk of a runaway convention veering off into non-budgetary topics.

The opportunity to propose amendments without the normal hurdle of getting them past two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate might prove hard for ideologues to resist.

Would conservative delegates really vote against, say, a separate amendment asserting that the protections of citizenship start at conception?

And there are indeed people on the left who like the idea of turning such a convention to their own ends. Two Republican majorities in Congress alongside a Republican president have made the idea of restraining the federal government more appealing to liberals. An Article V convention has a prominent advocate in Lawrence Lessig, an idealistic law professor at Harvard, who argues that it is the only way to achieve campaign-finance reform. Mr Lessig envisions a grand bargain of “electoral integrity for fiscal integrity”, in which the left would reduce the amount of money in elections and the right would reduce the amount spent by government.



This article was first published on The Economist on 30 September 2017