If you’re a conservative, you’re probably familiar with calls for a “convention of the states.”
Many of us are familiar with the basic mechanism behind this feature of our Constitution — under Article V, if two-thirds of the states agree to petition the federal government, they can bypass Congress and propose new amendments to the Constitution. Many of us even have vague ideas as to why we would want to do this.
However, during a forum in 1979, future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia may have come up with one of the best summations as to why such a convention is necessary. He may have been speaking 40 years ago, but he managed to presage the very problems we have with power in 2019.
The venue was an American Enterprise Institute forum called “A Constitutional Convention: How Well Would It Work?” Scalia, then a law professor at the University of Chicago, was one of four speakers. The moderator was John Charles Daly of ABC News (and “What’s My Line?” fame).
During the forum, he said he was “the one here who is least terrified of a convention” because he didn’t “have a lack of trust in the American people.”
Scalia said that there was “a widespread and deep feeling of powerlessness in the country is apparent with respect to many issues, not just the budget issue. The people do not feel that their wishes are observed. They are heard but they are not heeded, particularly at the federal level.
“The basic problem is simply that the Congress has become professionalized,” he said. “Its members have a greater interest than ever before in remaining in office; and it is served by a bureaucracy and is much more subject to the power of individualized pressure groups than to the unorganized feelings of the majority of the citizens.
And, he said, the states’ mere utilization of the Article V power would be enough to spur changes.
“One remedy for that, the one specifically provided for in the Constitution, is this amendment process which bypasses the Congress. I would like to see that amendment process used — just having it used once will exert an enormous influence on both the Congress and the Supreme Court.”
This is because, as Scalia said, Congress isn’t willing to give attention to the real issues people are concerned with. Instead, they’re concerned with their own electability. Constitutional amendments are difficult and take time and coalition-building. Why bother with that when you can merely promise it?
The one amendment that usually gets mentioned as part of an Article V convention — indeed, the potential amendment that took up most of the time when it was discussed by AEI back in 1979 — would be a balanced budget amendment.
It’s something members of Congress would never consider because, well, they like spending your money. Article V provides a way for Americans to have their voices heard.
It’s worth noting that Scalia seemed to change his opinion on a convention of the states in his later years. “I certainly would not want a constitutional convention,” he said in 2014, according to The Washington Post. “Whoa! Who knows what would come out of it?”
However, if you need to take away one thing from this, it’s that Congress in 1979 is little different than Congress in 2019. It’s unresponsive to the will of the people. Its members don’t want to listen unless they need your vote. As a body, it’s not willing to rein itself in. Its members are professional politicians who can stay in the body for as long as they want.
The debt keeps piling up as our own government remains indifferent, ever “more subject to the power of individualized pressure groups than to the unorganized feelings of the majority of the citizens.” It is power in its most unaccountable form.
Maybe Scalia is right about Article V: “just having it used once will exert an enormous influence on both the Congress and the Supreme Court.”
Even the threat of it might spur Congress to act on behalf of the people. What a concept.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.