Half Past the Month: Ready for a ‘Convention of the States’?
“What is history but the story of how politicians have squandered the blood and treasure of the human race?” — Thomas Sowell
by Craig Ladwig
It seems this week that the entire Eastern Seaboard has risen up to warn us against overreacting to what is viewed as the forgivable excesses of a determined government searching for a common good — sacrifice is the price of progress, reasonableness is only fair, omelets are made with broken eggs, etc.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s pretend our system of government really is “in a bad way,” as my Depression-era grandfather used to say. Particularly, let’s pretend that gradual changes in political incentives over the last century — more rapidly over the last few decades — have inadvertently worked to favor, even reward, the unprincipled in office over the principled.
This is Jonathan Martin of the New York Times summarizing Robert Kaiser’s new book, “Act of Congress”:
“Congress is dominated by intellectual lightweights who are chiefly consumed by electioneering and are largely irrelevant in a body where a handful of members and many more staff do the actual work of legislating.”
So, let’s say that is right; where do we go from there?
The first question is, how have the political incentives changed? A short list might include the progressive income tax, wealth distribution for “social justice,” politicized monetary policy, the year-round Congress (made possible by air-conditioning), multi-issue legislation and continuing resolutions, a relativist judiciary promoting equality of results over equality of opportunity, the degradation of private property, the regulation of political contributions, the rise of the professional politician and his consulting attendants, and a general unaccountability and detachment from a constitutional republic.
If all of that has led to the current situation, we could not count on the same men who created such a mess to correct it. They would be mediocre, Kaiser reminds us, and favored to boot. We would have to look for new leadership, new ideas, structural reform.
One of the newest ideas in front of us would be one of the oldest. It is a state-led “convention for proposing amendments” authorized by Article V of the U.S. Constitution, not to be confused with the more worrisome national constitutional convention. The process, never tried, is nonetheless prescribed by the Founders as a way to reattach an errant democracy to a foundation of law rather than men.
This spring, the Indiana Policy Review Foundation will explore this and other constitutional remedies at a special seminar led by Rob Natelson, a senior fellow at Colorado’s Independence Institute. Also invited are Indiana Sen. Jim Buck, chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force, and Sen. David Long, president pro tem of the Indiana Senate, both early advocates of the state-convention remedy. Indeed, Indiana in 1957 was the first to apply for a convention under Article V (specifically to propose a balanced-budget amendment).
The main elements of such a convention are explained by ALEC in a recent handbook:
- Just as other parts of the Constitution grant Congress certain listed (enumerated) powers, Article V also grants enumerated powers. Article V grants them to named assemblies (conventions and legislatures).
- Proposing amendments through a convention, as in Congress, is still only a method of proposing amendments. No amendment is effective unless ratified by three-fourths (38) of the states.
- A convention for proposing amendments has precisely the same power that Congress has to proposed amendments. Its power to propose is limited by the subject matter specified in state applications.
There are hundreds of questions that must be answered before the required number of state legislatures follow Indiana’s lead and apply for a convention on one or more common amendments.
Surely it would be a hard slog through the deepest political mud, one requiring the best qualities that men can muster in the most trying of times and against despotic power requiring the provision of new guards to liberty and security — if any of that rings a bell.