Quietly this April, the Democrat-controlled Colorado General Assembly decided to halt its involvement with national efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution. Colorado had been one of multiple states to demand Congress call a “Convention for proposing Amendments”—one of the two constitutional methods for proposing amendments, where the states themselves convene, discuss, and draft. But that demand is now rescinded. Buying into misinformation, the legislature has undermined national reform.
The U.S. Constitution requires Congress to call a convention when two-thirds of the states (34) demand one. Amendments are drafted at the convention, and if three-quarters of the states (38) ratify them, the Constitution is changed. Because Congress has always written its own amendments that were then ratified by the states, this type of convention has never been needed.
However, when it comes to restraining itself, Congress is not exactly the wisest institution to trust. Among the most popular proposed amendments are a balanced-budget requirement and congressional term limits—two things few bodies would impose on themselves. Luckily, the Founders gave the states this vehicle to bypass congressional gatekeeping.
As the convention has become a more popular idea, its opponents have raised fears of a “runaway convention.” According to them, once a convention is called, its topics could switch, risking altering our foundational document in unplanned and radical ways.
But that does not appreciate the incredibly broad consensus—thirty-eight states—required to actually change the Constitution. These alarms also tend to be coupled with accusations, for example, that balancing the budget or passing any debt cap at all is itself radical. So it’s all best taken with a grain of salt.
Although a convention of the states for proposing amendments has never taken place, many similar conventions have. Precedent that guided those conventions would guide this one too, says Robert G. Natelson, former constitutional law professor and current Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute. Of the more than ten conventions among the states during the Founding Era, not a single one ever veered from its stated purpose.
As Natelson explains, the Constitution’s language incorporates meaning it had during the Founding Era. In Article V’s case, this includes the established customs for how multistate conventions work. Delegates act as agents of the states they represent, and are empowered only to act within the scope of their instructions from the state legislature. This means sticking to the stated subject matter.
Furthermore, a convention that departed from its original purpose would just jeopardize reaching the threshold for an amendment; it would risk accomplishing nothing. The broad, earnest, and fragile movement—twenty-seven states already onboard for a balanced budget, for example, and thirty-four necessary for a convention—has no incentive to fail.
Any proposal must be widely popular to make it to a convention. It must be even more popular as well as well-drafted, to be ratified into the Constitution. To be so popular, it must be forthright and reasonable. Unpopular or usurpatious proposals simply stand zero chance of making their way into law.
Some restraint on debt with exceptions for emergencies, for example, is both reasonable and forthright. Currently, government spending is constitutionally limitless. With a debt cap, the U.S. government would have to prioritize and cut fat. Politicians would actually be forced to balance the benefits of their reelection promises against the costs. Germany, for example, constitutionally prohibits debt beyond 0.35% of its GDP.
Opponents of such reasonable outcomes are right to feel threatened they might not get their way, but they are wrong to attack the process. They target broadly popular initiatives with misinformation about procedure rather than with earnest critique on the merits. As of now, however, until the convention groundswell comes to the fore, they have convinced our own employees at the state capitol.
Clayton Calvin is a graduate of Pepperdine Law School and studied economics at Georgetown. He is currently with the Independence Institute’s Future Leaders Program.
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