If a nonprofit backed by corporate and private donors gets its way, the U.S. Constitution could be amended through an as-yet unused procedure.
The American Legislative Exchange Council is foremost among a number of conservative groups and interests that are calling for a convention to introduce amendments and bypass Congress, as permitted by Article V.
The ALEC effort is happening largely without public awareness. This has less to do with attempts at secrecy, and is due more to the glacial process escaping notice.
States have tried to call a convention almost since there was a Constitution. In 1983, there were 32 states calling for a convention on a balanced budget amendment. Momentum waned for the same reasons that critics cite today - it might become a "runaway convention" that addresses more issues than intended, or perhaps destroys the constitutional document.
"A national convention called to propose a change has only been used once -- to repeal prohibition -- and ratifying conventions at the state level has never been used," said Dr. Daniel Savage, professor of political science at Northeastern State University. "Constitutional change, in general, seems unlikely. Many Americans treat the Constitution like a sacred document and would be frightened by an attempt to introduce change."
Only Hawaii has never issued a call for an amendment assembly. Though 49 states have applied, there has been no convention because applications are often rescinded.
"Because 34 states would be needed to call for a national convention, and 38 to ratify any changes, it appears that ALEC will fall short of its goal," Savage said. "Just this year, Maryland, Nevada and New Mexico rescinded their calls for an Article V constitutional convention. ALEC now has 27 states calling for a convention, including Oklahoma. At most, they will pick up three to four more."
Article V makes no mention of cancelled requests, and there has been no court challenge. But because states can limit their petitions to a specific measure, states' relationships with Congress can improve on contentious issues, and application for convention is a state power, many constitutional scholars believe a state may recall its petition.
ALEC insists it is not asking that the Constitution be overhauled. The organization says it wants an Article V convention, or amendments convention, and that states would do nothing more than introduce amendments. ALEC has no problem leaving a dysfunctional Congress out of the loop.
A convention might have little effect. Amendments introduced at an Article V jamboree would face the same formidable hurdles as those presented to the states by Congress. Should two-thirds of states call a convention, a court challenge would almost certainly ensue to make certain the applications sufficiently mesh on the issues to be addressed. As with congressional adjustments, 38 states must approve - through legislatures or by state conventions - any Article V amendments to make them law.
They may be revered by many Americans, but the Framers only saw themselves as men trying to patch together a workable government - and arguing about it all the while.
Savage said Thomas Jefferson was "most comfortable with change," citing an 1816 letter penned by the nation's third president to attorney and author Sam Kercheval, a fellow Virginian.
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched," Jefferson wrote. "They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human…. [F]orty years of experience in government is worth a century of bookreading; and this they would say themselves [meaning the other Founders], were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions…. But I know, also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. ..."
This doesn't quiet criticism or worry among those with little enthusiasm for such a summit of states. Today's Constitution is actually the nation's second document of fundamental governing principles. The first was the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, ratified in 1781 during the War for Independence.
Convention opponents point to the events of 1787-'89, when the states conducted a "general convention" - there was no Article V in 1787. Delegates from the several states gathered for the "sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation."
Ultimately, "the Framers" chucked the whole mess out an Independence Hall window, replacing it with a nebulous document that Americans love, swear to defend, and argue over to this day. Ironically, a convention created the U.S. Constitution that skeptics want to protect from further convention adventures.