State-Initiated Constitutional Amendment Process Has Long History

February 28, 2011

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, says Robert G. Natelson, a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute. 

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 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, says Natelson.

Source: Robert G. Natelson, "Learning from Experience: How the States Used Article V Applications in America's First Century," Goldwater Institute, November 3, 2010.

 

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