Convention of States
A Convention of States is a hypothetical and untried method of amending the U.S. Constitution. It is also a touchstone of faith among members of the American Tea Party movement that they could be influential using hypothetical and untried methods, whereas they have never been influential by ringing doorbells and trying to persuade people.
The United States was originally a creation of the thirteen colonies (and not the other way around), a loose confederation with several state currencies competing to be the most worthless, mostly locked in war with England for their independence, whose youth were mostly dependent on barnyard animals to tutor them. The Continental Congress called a Convention of States to consider some minor improvements in the Articles of Confederation that could take down the customs booths and occasional armed conflicts at state borders, a state of affairs unheard-of in the Mother Country (where even now, you can cross into Wales without much of a fight).
The convention did not exceed its mandate; it discarded its mandate. In fact, it discarded the Articles of Confederation and started from scratch to write an entirely new charter for the young nation, to become the "lore of the land" upon ratification by nine of the 13 colonies. Never mind that the Articles specified unanimity.
A strong central government was frightening to many. The new Constitution provided for a way to amend itself, but pamphleteers of the time worried that, in the unlikely case that Congress should become filled with scoundrels and liars, it would not serve to let the scoundrels write their own amendment to force themselves to shape up. The Framers included a second alternative: "Congress...on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments...." Again, this is untested code in the operating system, of the same sort as Donald Trump's last four schemes to breeze into a second term after losing the 2020 election.
An obvious consequence of writing a Constitution on the back of an envelope to fit in a small pamphlet is that no one knows what this snippet from Article V means. Among the many unanswered questions are the following:
- Do the states have to say what kind of amendments they would like?
- If so, do the states have to say the same thing?
- Can the states restrict the business of the convention at all?
- Having called for a convention, can a state reconsider and vote out a "Never Mind"?
Like, if 17 states call for a convention to write an amendment banning gasoline, and 17 call for a convention to write an amendment requiring sex with goats, do you hold a convention? and which one does it write? All of the above?
By one standard — if you count all the states that have called for a convention, assume they don't need to have called for the same kind of convention, and can't change their mind — then 49 of the 50 have done so, and there is an active request right now that Congress "shall" obey. Oddly, Congress does not have any sort of a count, though the Office of the House Clerk promises to do one real soon. There is nothing to worry about, though; Congress is also required by law to write a federal budget, and your grandfather can tell you what that was like.
There are further questions about how a convention would work:
- Will it be one vote per state, like the U.S. Senate?
- Or will the vote be by population, like the House of Representatives?
- If so, will we be able to count our slaves as 1 person, or will we have to do the three-fifths thing again? (Never mind, the nation resolved that in the noisiest possible way.)
- Given that Congress regulates wages, carbon dioxide, and swear words on the radio, will it really keep its paws off the convention?
- Will we be able to get hamburgers and milkshakes served by car-hops on roller skates?
In fact, there is only one thing we do know: that whatever amendments the convention barfs up are nothing until they get ratified by 38 of the 50 states. So there is nothing to worry about, as they also said right before the amendment that started Prohibition.
There isn't any history of the Convention of States because there has never been one.
The current interest in the untried parts of Article V is mostly on the right-wing. The right-wing is as enamored of arcane passages in the Constitution as it is to discover contradictory Bible quotes with which it could be argued that God is okay with you setting up that Ponzi scheme. Rare members of the left-wing who have read the Constitution didn't understand it, which probably means that it is stupid. They would rather assemble a CNN panel of experts arguing that the people who say their platform is unconstitutional are lying racists who don't care about people like us.
Many members of the Tea Party movement hope to induce their states to call for a Convention of States that would propose amendments to make Congress responsive to the people, to have the U.S. Government live within its means, and to do away with self-dealing and porkbarrel politics. In 2016, Rand Paul proposed a law that every Representative had to personally read through every bill before voting on it; but surely this should be in the Constitution, or else every 2000-page monstrosity would contain a clause exempting itself. Better yet, let's just write an amendment that Congressmen will do what's right rather than what will get them past the next election.
Now, the Tea Party movement has no Congressmen nor Senators; it is slightly less visible than the Whig Party in state legislatures, and whenever it writes an actual bill, vested interests smother it to death in a committee that no one in the Tea Party knew was even meeting. Astonishingly, the same Tea Partiers believe that, once a Convention of States is called, all the vested interests will be doing something else that day, and the Tea Party will be the star of the show and able to pass all its favorite amendments. And that the vested interests will continue to be too distracted to attack and defeat them in either house in 13 of the 50 states. After all, people always say America's strength is its optimism.