A Convention of States Wouldn’t Fix the US Constitution

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution. Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns. Public Domain.
Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution. Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns. Public Domain.

The Convention of States Project seeks, as its name reflects, a convention of states as provided for in Article V of the US Constitution. Such a convention, CPS claims, would “only allow” discussion of amendments that “limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, impose fiscal restraints, and place term limits on federal officials.”

The magic number of states for calling a convention  is 34. According to a map on the CPS site, 15 states have passed the required resolution, while one legislative chamber has passed it in nine, and another 16 have “active legislation” on the matter. So, while it may or may not happen, it’s certainly a live proposal.

The idea comes with quite a few problems.

One is that such a convention would decide for itself what it was “allowed” to do, just as the first such convention exceeded its own mandate (it was only “allowed” to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation, but instead proposed replacing those Articles with the Constitution).

A second problem is that (fortunately, vis a vis the first) it’s unlikely that the states would be able to agree on much at all.

A third problem is that even if they did agree in convention, it’s unlikely that 3/4 of the states would ratify term limits or fiscal restraints. Every state legislator sees a future US Representative, Senator, or president in the mirror each morning, and they all tend to a (secret, contradicting their campaign rhetoric) variant on St. Augustine’s prayer:  “Give me chastity and continence, but not right now.”

The biggest problem, though is that a constitution is, even at its very perfected best, only as good as adherence to that constitution.

Why do supporters of an Article V convention expect the US government would obey the proposed amendments any more than it obeys the existing document?

“In questions of power,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798, “let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Three years later, Jefferson was President of the United States.  Five years later, he proved himself (and Congress) unbound by those chains with the Louisiana Purchase, an act provided for nowhere in that Constitution.

In 1870, American anarchist Lysander Spooner observed that “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it.”

“In either case,” Spooner concluded, “it is unfit to exist.”

I’m skeptical of the notion that political government can ever be forced to limit its own power and prerogatives. The history of the United States tends to justify that skepticism.

Absent evidence that America’s rulers can be bound down from supposedly forbidden mischief by the chains of the existing Constitution, attempting to amend that Constitution seems more like an eccentric hobby — on the order of building model UFOs or collecting rare tuna cans — than a serious attempt to secure our rights and defend our liberty.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.