On September 15, 1787, the final full day of deliberations at the Constitutional Convention, the text of Article V was agreed upon, unanimously. At the insistence of George Mason, the states were given the authority to propose amendments without the approval of Congress. This was necessary, argued Mason, because the Congress itself might become the cause of the need for an amendment.
This power has been successfully deployed only once in the years since, when it was used to coerce the Senate into passing the 17th Amendment. Senate seats had been for sale in many state legislatures, and only when 30 of the needed 32 Article V resolutions were passed did the Senate bow to the will of the people, and agree to popular election.
Today the corruption and dysfunction of Congress exceeds, perhaps, that at any time in our history. The situation is so extreme that it cries out for the states, once again, to intervene, and correct these abuses using Article V.
The Framers distrusted state legislatures, and made their exercise of Article V power extremely difficult. Only amendments which have the support of a bipartisan supermajority are possible.
When the campaign for an Article V Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) began in 1975, it was led by two Democrats, from Maryland and Mississippi. Success came quickly, and by 1979 the idea had taken hold. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown of California launched his campaign for the Presidency featuring an Article V BBA as one of his principle proposals.
At this point Congressional Democrats, led by Speaker Tip O’Neill, launched a counterattack. Rather than address the BBA on its merits, they concocted the scare tactic of a “runaway convention”, and eventually succeeded in halting, and then reversing, the progress toward an Article V BBA. In the years since, the BBA has become a partisan issue, making its passage all but impossible.*
Now another proposal has the promise of attaining bipartisan, supermajority support — Campaign Finance Reform (CFR). Congressional corruption is thoroughly bipartisan. Congressional dysfunction is so extreme that action must be taken, lest our entire republican form of government be lost.
Five Democratic state legislatures have passed Article V CFR Resolutions. If Republican legislatures add their numbers, the needed 34 state threshold can be reached, and the first Article V Amendment Convention in our history can be held.
Republican legislators are wary of campaign finance reform. They fear it could have an empowering effect for the Democratic Party, and prove an impediment to their own election.
This fear is groundless, since the current political environment gives Republicans control of 30 state legislatures, more than enough to ensure that Republicans, not Democrats, would have a majority at any Amendment Convention. No conclave controlled by Republicans will produce an amendment which puts them at a competitive disadvantage.
All the talk of a runaway convention is moonshine. Every legislature will send as delegates its most trusted and experienced members. These senior statesmen will meet knowing full well that the eyes of the nation, and of history, are upon them. The idea that these honorable men and women would violate their oath, disregard their instructions, and undertake some sort of constitutional coup d’etat is so ludicrous it doesn’t deserve further discussion.
It goes without saying that the delegates to an Amendment Convention will never approach the quality of the men who assembled in Philadelphia. There is no Madison, or Franklin, or Washington among us. But we can hope that these men and women will match their predecessors in one respect. Looking back, some 40 years after the event, Madison recalled “that there never was an assembly of men, charged with a great & arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives”.
That, we can reasonably expect.