Article Five’s Lesser Known Provision

Among President Woodrow Wilson’s more well-known–and insidious–views on federal government and the Constitution was that our founding document and the constraints it places on government weren’t meant to be static, permanent constructs. Instead, he saw them rather as mutable and dynamic guidelines that could change as government deemed it necessary:

“Government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls not under the [Newtonian] theory of the universe, but under the [Darwinian] theory of organic life.”

Such is a hallmark of progressivism: that the evolution of government from one limited by the Constitution with specific, enumerated powers to one with the authority to encroach on ever greater tracts of American life is entirely natural. Wilson’s invocation of Darwinian evolution as it relates to government is instructive. Just as biological evolution posits that organisms change from “simple” to more “complex”, he envisioned government playing an ever more expansive role in society than how it started. Largely, he got his wish.

However, just because his ends–a vast, centralized government–have been realized, doesn’t mean that his conflation of Darwinian theory with the machinations of government holds water.

Wilson is often credited as quite the intellectual. He was, after all, the first president to hold a doctorate–from Johns Hopkins, go figure. But the Founders laid claim to that affectation long before he did.

The fact of the matter is this: it’s not necessary under our system of governance to hearken to a fluid, evolutionary view of our Constitution, one in which the Constitution must bend to the whims and dictates of the government, instead of the other way around. The reason is simple: those simpleton forefathers, whom Wilson clearly disdained by even suggesting that the Constitution is mutable at all, provided a mechanism–in the Constitution itself –whereby it could be changed, recognizing that from time to time that the Constitution may need to be updated to address societal changes, but still maintain its original, unerring foundation and meaning. That mechanism is found in Article V.

Article V outlines the procedure for amending the Constitution. Adding an amendment is quite straightforward, involving just two aspects: proposal and ratification. Although it’s a simple process, it also features intentionally high benchmarks for passage, meant to preserve our founding document’s integrity.

To be adopted, an amendment is first proposed by either a supermajority of both houses of Congress, or a national convention assembled by two-thirds of the State legislatures–currently at 34. For ratification and passage, three-quarters–or 38–of either the State legislatures or State ratifying conventions must adopt the proposed amendment in order for it to become law of the land.

All 27 present amendments to the Constitution have been proposed by Congress themselves, while only one–the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition–went to the state ratifying conventions for adoption.

While this more common process of proposing amendments has worked fine in the past, the lesser known provision–a national convention of the States–is going to become increasingly necessary to invoke in order to address two issues in particular that all people (should) care about: a balanced budget and term limits.

The less common provision allowing a national convention of States to propose an amendment is an important check on federal power, as it allows the States to largely circumvent Congress, thereby decentralizing runaway federal power and insuring that the States have a place at the table. Since the 17th Amendment has, in large part, neutered the States’ ability to influence Congress, this amendment process is one of the only ways with which they can reclaim a rightful balance of power.

As it relates to a balanced budget and term limit amendments, the second provision is doubly important for the States: besides providing a check on federal power, there’s not a chance in hell under the present Congressional climate that they could be passed. These two amendments, perhaps more than any others, would substantially diminish federal power. Does anyone here believe for a moment that a supermajority of Congress, let alone a simple one, is going to voluntarily curb their own power? If so, please exit out of this screen, because you’re beyond help.

Fortunately, at least one state has decided that the time is ripe for such a national convention. Today, the Georgia legislature passed SR 736, calling for a constitutional convention that “would provide an opportunity for the citizens of this great nation to restore the balance of power between the States and the Federal government.”

Georgia becomes the first state in history to pass such a resolution, and is the first of 34 that are needed to call for a national convention. Given our $17+ trillion dollar debt, yearly trillion dollar deficits and elected representatives staying in Congress for a half century or more, the onus is now on the States to force the federal government to live within its means, and ensure that politicians are unable to firmly entrench themselves in the seat of federal power.

A near all-powerful Congress can’t be trusted to limit their own power. The lesser known provision of the Fifth Article of the Constitution may yet be our only way forward.

Author’s note: Previously, I mistakenly stated that President Wilson got his doctorate from Princeton. He actually received it from  Johns Hopkins. I’ve corrected the error, although it matters little which elite university he received it from. Hopkins or Princeton, he still did more to erode the Constitution than perhaps any president of the modern era. The trend continues.

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About Michael Haugen

Michael Haugen is a full-spectrum conservative and recent graduate from Eastern Washington University (BS Biology). His main interests in politics and public policy center around health care, education and tax reform. He'll be returning to EWU in 2014 to complete a Master's degree in Public Administration. Follow him on Twitter: @HaugenTRA

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