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An Amendments Convention is a “Convention of the States”—Here’s the Proof

An Amendments Convention is a “Convention of the States”—Here’s the Proof

Some opponents of holding a convention for proposing amendments to the U.S. Constitution still claim the nature and composition of an amendments convention is a “mystery.”

That claim has not been viable for several years now, but it certainly is no longer viable with the publication of the copious evidence that an amendments convention is simply a convention of the states—a kind of meeting that has happened many times in our history, and whose protocols and composition are well understood.

The Heartland Institute has just published my article, Why a “Convention for Proposing Amendments” is a Convention of the States. It draws together the copious evidence on the subject. You can get it here.

Convention of States: How the States Meet to Bypass Congress

Convention of States: How the States Meet to Bypass Congress

This article was originally published in Townhall.com.

The idea of a convention of states such as the one scheduled for Phoenix, Arizona on September 12 may be unfamiliar to most people, but similar conventions have gathered throughout American history.

British-American colonies first met in convention in 1677 to negotiate an Indian treaty. After that first meeting, inter-colonial conventions gathered on average every four to five years, up to the time of Independence. They considered Indian relations, defense, and other common issues. The famous Stamp Act Congress (1765) and the First Continental Congress (1774) were both inter-colonial conventions, and the Founding generation referred to them as such.

After the Declaration of Independence, the pace of conventions accelerated. State commissioners (delegates) met ten times between 1776 and 1786, including conclaves in Providence, Rhode Island (1776-77), Yorktown, Pennsylvania (1777), New Haven, Connecticut (1778), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1780), and Annapolis, Maryland (1786). These gatherings focused mostly on defense and economic matters. The 11th convention of the Founding era became the most famous: the 1787 Philadelphia conclave destined to draft a new Constitution.

Not all these early conventions were successful, but the convention mechanism proved invaluable. Conventions frequently resolved difficult problems that otherwise would have gone unsolved. And contrary to some of the claims you hear today, commissioners stuck by their agendas and did their jobs. This is why Article V of the U.S. Constitution authorizes a convention of states as a way to propose needed constitutional amendments Congress refuses to propose.

Each convention of states is a temporary task force of duly authorized state representatives convened to address and propose solutions to one or more specific issues. A convention results when states accept an invitation (referred to as a “call”) sent by a state, a prior convention, or, occasionally, Congress. The 2017 Phoenix convention was called by Arizona’s state legislature to prepare for the likelihood that a convention will soon meet to propose an amendment requiring Congress to balance the federal budget.

The Phoenix convention is not the first to be held since the Constitution was adopted. In fact, some of the most interesting conventions of states met in the 19th and 20th centuries. The New England states met in 1814 in Hartford, Connecticut to discuss how those states should respond to the unpopular War of 1812. The Hartford Convention proposed several amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Southern states assembled twice in Nashville, Tennessee in 1850 to coordinate a response to what they saw as overreach by the North. In early 1861, Virginia called a general convention for Washington, DC. That assembly proposed a constitutional amendment it hoped would stave off the Civil War. (The amendment was not adopted.) At the same time, several seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama to draft the Confederate Constitution.

Lasting success was enjoyed by the 1889 convention of states called by Kansas for St. Louis, Missouri. It successfully proposed state and national anti-trust laws. During the 20th century, a series of small conventions negotiated the allocation of western river waters. The best known of these was the seven-state Colorado River Compact Commission of 1922. The latest was the five-state convention that divided the waters of the Upper Colorado River in the 1940s.

Historically, most conventions of states have consisted of only a few states within a particular region, such as New England or the Midwest. But seven have been national in scope (“general conventions”). Whether regional or general, however, conventions have followed certain common protocols, including the rule by which participating states have equal votes.

The Article V Information Center in Denver recently posted a list of prior conventions of states. The list shows there have been 38 fully verified conventions and another five for which the Center has partial information. The Center website contains a great deal of additional information about conventions of states and the constitutional amendment process.

How the States Have Used the “Convention of States”

How the States Have Used the “Convention of States”

This article first appeared Aug. 15, 2017 in The Hill.

Representatives of state legislatures from across the nation will converge in Phoenix, Arizona on Sept. 12 to participate in a traditional American institution called a “convention of states.”

Conventions of states are valuable. They help ensure Washington, DC doesn’t dictate all decisions on every subject.

The purpose of the meeting in Phoenix is to plan for another, even more important convention — one to propose adding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The latter event is likely within the next two to three years.

Most people know the U.S. Constitution was drafted at a convention of states held in 1787. What few know is that there have been many other conventions of states. They and their colonial predecessors have met periodically for more than 300 years.

Apologists for unlimited federal power have done a good job of suppressing public awareness of that fact. They often claim or imply interstate meetings are “constitutional conventions” and that they are largely unprecedented, but the truth is dramatically different.

The Article V Information Center I run recently posted a list of prior conventions of states. The list shows there have been 38 fully verified assemblies of this kind and another five for which the Center has partial information — seven of which happened since 1787.

Not every interstate conclave qualifies as a convention of states. A true convention of states is a temporary task force where commissioners from three or more states consider possible solutions to problems on the agenda. They are essentially diplomatic meetings among sovereignties and, historically, have followed well-established procedures and protocols. For example, each state generally has one vote, and a formal recommendation requires approval by a majority of states present and voting.

Most interstate conventions have been regional affairs, involving just a handful of participants. But at least seven have been “general conventions” — that is, meetings in which states from all over the country take part. The Phoenix gathering will be a general convention.

The first conclave of this kind occurred in 1677, when several colonies convened in Albany, New York to negotiate a treaty with Indian tribes.

Later conventions negotiated additional Indian treaties. They also planned defense against hostile tribes and French Canada. A 1754 convention negotiated a treaty and recommended a plan by Benjamin Franklin to unify the colonies.

When tensions with Great Britain arose, the 1765 Stamp Act Congress and the 1774 First Continental Congress — both formal conventions of colonies — coordinated America’s response.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence converted the colonies into states, and those states continued to meet in convention. Their conventions addressed problems the Continental Congress could not solve. For example, a general convention met in Philadelphia in 1780 to propose a solution to rampant wartime price inflation.

Conventions of states continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. Not all these gatherings were successful. The 1780 convention broke up without proposing anything. The assemblies in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814 and Washington, DC in 1861 recommended constitutional amendments, but their proposals went nowhere.

On the other hand, some conventions produced great things. The 1744 conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania negotiated a significant Indian treaty. The 1786 Annapolis Convention proposed the outstandingly successful Constitutional Convention. Recommendations from the 1889 St. Louis Convention led to passage of state and federal anti-trust laws. A 1922 convention (called the Colorado River Commission) negotiated the Colorado River Compact. During the 1940s, an interstate convention allocated water in the Upper Colorado River.

James Madison pointed out that under our Constitution the states have crucial responsibilities in national governance. Conventions help the states meet those responsibilities.

List of Conventions of States and Colonies in American History

List of Conventions of States and Colonies in American History

Introduction

Conventions of states, and before Independence of colonies have met frequently over the past three centuries. A “Convention for proposing Amendments” held under the Constitution is a gathering of this type.

The following list itemizes all known conventions of states or colonies.

To qualify as a convention of states (or colonies), the gathering must be a temporary meeting of legislatively-authorized representatives of at least three states or colonies, convening pursuant to instructions to consult about and/or negotiate solutions to assigned problem(s). At some conventions of states, other sovereignties have been invited to participate. The convention may be charged with proposing solutions or, in rare cases, with presenting solutions that participating states or colonies agree in advance to accept. Legislative authorization may be direct (by a specific statute or resolution) or indirect (by prior legislation or standing order).

In the list below, some conventions are identified as general. A convention is general if all states, or at least states from all regions, are invited to participate. If not identified as general, the convention is partial or regional.

Conventions of states sometimes are known by other names. Conventions meeting before establishment of the Second Continental Congress usually were called “congresses”—although they were called conventions as well. Some gatherings have been called “councils” or “committees” as well as conventions. The official name of the assembly in Washington, D.C. in 1861 was the “Washington Conference Convention,” but most history books refer to it by its unofficial nickname: the Washington Peace Conference. Similarly, twentieth-century conventions been called “commissions” (e.g., Colorado River Compact Commission). But they actually were temporary conventions of states, and should not be confused with those commissions that are permanent administrative bodies.

The first list includes the verified conventions. A convention is verified if we have reliable information of the date and place of meeting, subject matter, and states or colonies participating. The second list is of unverified conventions. A convention is unverified if we have reliable information that a meeting was held, but not as to all of those items.

Finally: Not included on the list are conventions that were called, but never met. These include, for example, the Charleston price convention called by Congress for the Southern states in 1777, the convention of Northeastern states called by Massachusetts in 1783, and the Navigation Convention called for Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland for (1786). Although these planned conclaves proved abortive, the historical records surrounding them is useful in confirming and clarifying standard interstate convention protocols.

Further information on these conventions is located at articlevinfocenter.com. Additional information on conventions up to 1787 appears in this article.

Verified Conventions

          Before Independence

  1. Albany (1677) (Indian negotiations)
  2. Albany (1684) (Indian negotiations)
  3. Boston (1689) (defense issues)
  4. Albany (1689) (Indian negotiations)
  5. New York City (1690) (defense)
  6. New York City (1693) (defense)
  7. Albany (1694) (Indian negotiations)
  8. New York City (1704) (defense)
  9. Boston (1711) (defense)
  10. Albany (1722) (Indian negotiations)
  11. Albany (1744) (defense)
  12. Lancaster, PA (1744) (Indian negotiations)
  13. Albany (1745) (defense)
  14. Albany (1745) (Indian negotiations)
  15. New York City (1747) (defense)
  16. Albany (1751) (Indian negotiations)
  17. Albany (1754) (Indian negotiations & plan of union) — general
  18. New York City (1765) (response to Stamp Act) — general
  19. Fort Stanwyx (Rome, NY) (1768) (Indian negotiations)
  20. New York City (1774) (response to British actions)—general

           After Independence

  1. Providence, RI (1776-77) (paper currency and public credit)
  2. York Town, PA (1777) (price control)
  3. Springfield, MA (1777) (economic issues)
  4. New Haven, CN (1778) (price controls and other responses to inflation)
  5. Hartford, CN (1779) (economic issues)
  6. Philadelphia (1780) (price controls)—general
  7. Boston (1780) (conduct of Revolutionary War)
  8. Hartford (1780) (conduct of Revolutionary War)
  9. Providence, RI (1781) (war supply)
  10. Annapolis, MD (1786) (trade)—general
  11. Philadelphia (1787) (propose changes in political system)—general
  12. Hartford, CN (1814) (New England states’ response to the War of 1812)
  13. Nashville, TN (1850)(Southern response to the North)
  14. Washington, DC (1861)(propose a constitutional amendment)—general
  15. Montgomery, AL(1861) (write the Confederate constitution)
  16. Louis, MO (1889) (propose anti-trust measures)
  17. Santa Fe,  NM & other cities (1922) (negotiate the Colorado River Compact)
  18. Denver & other cities (1946-49) (negotiate Upper Colorado River Basin Compact)

Unverified Conventions

  1. Boston(?) (1757) (defense)
  2. Salt Lake City (1920) (Western water issues)
  3. Lower Colo. River states (>1922) (unsuccessful river negotiations)
  4. Colorado Springs, Santa Fe (1924, 1928-29) (negotiate Rio Grande River Compact) (technically may have comprised 2-3 separate conventions)
  5. Washington, D.C. (1924 & intermittently thereafter)—unsuccessful negotiation regarding North Platte River)

 

Drafting a Balanced Budget Amendment: It’s tougher than you might think

Drafting a Balanced Budget Amendment: It’s tougher than you might think

The idea of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution (BBA) has been highly popular since the 1970s. Yet Congress has failed to propose a BBA, and the number of states applying for a proposing convention remains stuck below the necessary 34. Meanwhile, the federal debt continues to soar out of control.

Among the tactics employed by Article V skeptics is to highlight the difficulties in drafting an effective BBA. For once they have a point. Here are some of the defects afflicting present drafts, including some reproduced in Article V legislative applications:

  • Relying on congressional supermajorities (two thirds, three fourths, 60%) whose practical effect will vary in unknown ways between the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
  • Unwittingly validating federal spending programs that, objectively considered, are currently unconstitutional.
  • Introducing into the Constitution new words and phrases (e.g., “outlays,” “estimated revenue”), either undefined or poorly defined.
  • Relying on budgetary formulae shown to be ineffective at the state level.
  • Including terms (e.g., two-thirds vote to raise taxes) pleasing to potential donors, but rendering impossible the broad coalition necessary to ratify.
  • Relying unduly on the courts for enforcement.

In addition, some of the drafts are simply too long to be accepted as amendments. The longest constitutional change ever adopted was the Fourteenth Amendment—containing 423 words—but some BBA drafts are far longer. In addition, some drafts contain unclear language. Consider this example appearing in a few state applications:

Total outlays of the government of the United States shall not exceed total receipts of the government of the United States at any point in time unless [a condition is met].

What does it mean to say that total outlays cannot exceed total receipts “at any point in time?” Does that mean that the inflow of dollars must always exceed the simultaneous outflow? Maybe. But if so, it disregards the realities of government finance: tax revenue arrives in chunks (as on April 15), while spending is more constant over the course of the year. Or does it mean that at any “point in time” all expenditures ever made, from 1789 to date, cannot exceed all funds received? But that would render existing debt unconstitutional. And what is a “point in time,” anyway? A day? hour? nanosecond? As Kurt Vonnegut might have quipped, “So it goes.”

Of course, it is one thing to criticize, but another to try to craft something better. A new Heartland Institute Policy Brief includes my own draft, with accompanying explanations. I know it is imperfect, and neither my draft nor anyone else’s should be included in state legislative applications. (The proposing convention has the constitutional prerogative of writing the amendment.) My goal is merely to “reset” public discussion to, perhaps, a higher level, and encourage others to offer proposals better than mine.

You can get the Policy Brief here.