By Nick Dranias, the Goldwater Institute Clarence J. and Katherine P. Duncan chair for constitutional government and the director of the Institute’s Dorothy D. and Joseph A. Moller Center for Constitutional Government.
In the face of growing federal power and mounting deficits, some want states to call for a convention for proposing amendments to the U.S. Constitution that would rein in the federal government. Article V of the Constitution authorizes states to initiate amendments with a convention. Critics claim no one really knows how the process works and calling a convention would open the door to mischief by Congress, the courts, and convention delegates. But states frequently applied for an amendments convention between 1789 and 1913. A study of that history reveals much about how states can - and cannot - use the Article V process today.
This report, the second in a three-part series, compares milestones such as the failed efforts of the southern states to rely on Article V to support nullification of federal law and the indirectly successful efforts of the progressive movement to elect U.S. senators by popular vote.
Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow Robert Natelson’s research confirms that, for the most part, Americans stayed close to the original understanding of Article V and the important ground rules governing the process. Historically, there has been a sharp distinction between an Article V convention and a general constitutional convention. Likewise, a majority of state Article V applications were limited to particular subjects. Most people agreed the amendments convention would be a creature of the state legislatures that controlled the convention agenda, while convention delegates would have discretion over an amendment’s actual language.
Although the state-initiated Article V process has not yet led directly to adoption of a constitutional amendment, its history from 1789 until 1913 shows a remarkable continuity in its use and a consensus on the process involved. This consensus lays a solid foundation for current efforts and allays critics’ fears that the process could run amok.
Read Learning from Experience: How the States Used Article V Applications in America's First Century here.