Senior Director of State Fiscal Research
New Mexico lawmakers yesterday rescinded the state’s resolutions of decades ago calling for a national convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. That’s important because other states – misled by arguments from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other groups – are calling for a convention, which would put at risk the cherished rights and freedoms that the Constitution provides and deepen the country’s wide divisions. Maryland and Nevada, which are also considering rescinding their resolutions, can build on New Mexico’s vote by acting this year on this critical issue.
The Constitution’s Article V provides two methods for amendment. The method used in all previous instances requires two-thirds of each house of Congress to approve an amendment, and then for three-fourths of the states to ratify it. The other method requires two-thirds of the states (34 states) to petition Congress for a convention to consider and propose amendments. Convention proponents claim that they’re close to reaching the 34-state threshold, following Wyoming’s vote this month to call for a convention. Their count is questionable — in part because it includes some resolutions passed decades ago — but Congress may choose to accept it.
Contrary to ALEC’s claims, states can’t control a convention’s actions or outcomes. The Constitution gives no guidance on the operating rules, and there’s no precedent on which to rely because a convention has never been called under Article V. Yet much would be at stake. As constitutional scholar and Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe has said, “what you’re doing is putting the whole Constitution up for grabs.”
The only constitutional convention in U.S. history, in 1787, went far beyond its mandate. Charged with amending the Articles of Confederation, it instead wrote an entirely new governing document. It also changed the very rules of ratification, lowering the number of states needed to approve the new constitution.
A convention held today could set its own agenda under the influence of powerful interest groups. As former Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, a “Constitutional Convention today would be a free-for-all for special interest groups.”
Our Constitution has served us well for over 200 years, and Americans across the political spectrum hold it dear. In the current environment, any constitutional convention would be hard fought and highly controversial — further dividing Americans rather than creating the unity that we so desperately need. New Mexico’s action is an important step toward protecting our country’s future.