by Fergus Hodgson
Director of Fiscal Policy Studies
This is a guest post from State Senator Curtis Olafson (North Dakota). For more on the NDRA, please see my recent blog post which includes links to a variety of sources for further reading.
For the last year, it has been my privilege to serve as the National Spokesman for the National Debt Relief Amendment (NDRA). The NDRA is a state-initiated, non-partisan effort invoking the rights of state legislatures to propose and ratify amendments to the United States Constitution using the process our Founding Fathers wisely provided in Article V of the Constitution. This experience has led me to conclude that we who serve as state legislators should fully understand the powerful tool we have at our disposal in Article V. If we are to restore and preserve our great Republic, we must be willing to use it.
The NDRA is a very simple 18-word amendment that is very easy to understand. As I travel the country and visit with citizens and state legislators, I have found that our challenge lies not with convincing people to like the amendment. The challenge is to overcome the fact that a majority of state legislators are unfamiliar with the amendment process. That unfamiliarity prompts concerns that are founded in fear of the unknown, and not in fact. Once people understand the state-initiated amendment process, their concerns are resolved and their fears are allayed.
Under Article V, there are two methods by which an amendment can be proposed for state ratification: either Congress can propose an amendment by a 2/3rds vote of both chambers, or 2/3rds of the state legislatures (currently 34) can join together in making “application” to Congress to issue a call for a time and a place for a convention of the states. Once Congress has specified a time and a place for the convention, Congress plays no further role in the process until such time as the convention agrees on an amendment or amendments. If the convention comes to an agreement (and they have no obligation to do so), Congress must specify that ratification be decided either directly by the state legislatures or by popular conventions within each state as regulated by state law. (All of the amendments added to date except one have been ratified by the state legislatures). Whether amendments are proposed by Congress or by an amendments convention, 3/4ths of the states must ratify the proposed amendment(s) before it can become part of our Constitution.
Other than the limited powers given to Congress to issue a call for a place and a date for a convention of the states and to choose one of two ratification methods, the states control the process and decide the outcome. The Supreme Court, the president, and state governors play no role in the application process or in convention deliberations. Thus, the only authority in our Republic that has the power to both propose and ratify amendments is the several states. The Founding Fathers did not give that power to Congress, the Supreme Court, or to governors. They intended that the amendments conventions process would provide a check and balance whenever federal power was misused.
I believe that our Founding Fathers intended that we, as state legislators, would not only understand that we have the right to use Article V, but moreover, we have a duty to do so when we see serious challenges facing our nation that are not being solved by our federal government.
The most common concern that legislators have is that the convention will “run away”—and in the most extreme scenario, actually re-write the entire Constitution. This concern has been repeated so many times over several decades that it has achieved “urban legend” status and has become accepted as being true, even though it has no basis in fact or historical perspective. Constitutional scholars such as Rob Natelson of the Independence Institute and Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute, who have studied the process thoroughly, have published research that convincingly debunks these myths. Some of their work on Article V can be found on our website at www.restoringfreedom.org and on many other sites.
There are multiple layers of protection in the Article V process which make it politically impossible for a convention to “run away” or to propose extreme or radical amendments. Those who preach fear about the process pose what they claim are “unanswerable questions,” all of which can readily be answered. The best example is their question of who will choose the convention delegates. The answer is that delegates are chosen in the manner the state legislatures direct—not by Congress, not by the president, and not by nefarious boogeymen the scare-mongers conjure up to paralyze legislators into inaction.
The ultimate protection built into the Article V process is the high hurdle for ratification. Unless and until 38 states ratify a proposed amendment, the Constitution is untouched and nothing changes.
If our Founding Fathers could stand before state legislators today, I believe they would demand to know why we are not using the tool they provided for us to correct serious challenges facing our nation that are not being solved in Washington, DC. The NDRA is by no means the only good idea that could be advanced using Article V. There are others. Winston Churchill said “I never worry about action, but only inaction.” The time for action is now. A runaway amendments convention is a myth. A runaway 16-trillion dollar federal debt is a reality.
This article first appeared in Stateline Midwest, annual meeting edition.