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What is an “Article V Convention of the States”?

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Numerous states – now including Montana – are considering legislation calling for an Article V Convention of the states. What does that mean?

Article V of the United States Constitution outlines two ways to amend the document. The first is through the normal process of two-thirds votes in each House, as well as ratification by the states. The other method much less known allows for two thirds of the states to call a Convention to propose amendments (still subject to ratification).

This is not the first time an Article V push has been mounted, as the Congressional Research Service reports here.

In order for a Constitutional Convention to be called, 34 states must submit applications. Right now, 19 states have passed a resolution, six more have passed it in one chamber, and now Montana is considering it. We'll see soon whether Idaho, Wyoming or Washington consider the effort.

What topics might a Constitutional Convention tackle? Consider the effort in the 1980’s, when supporters pushed states to call for a Constitutional Convention to tackle the topic of a balanced budget amendment. But there is a possibility that numerous topics could be considered – if it ever happened. Much could depend on the kind of convention that is called. Generally speaking, there are three different conventions discussed:

· The general convention, which would be free to consider any and all additions to the Constitution, as well as alterations to existing constitutional provisions.

· The limited convention, which would be restricted by its “call,” or authorizing legislation, to consideration of a single issue or group of issues, as specified by the states in their applications.

· The “runaway” convention, frequently identified by convention opponents as one of the dangers inherent in the process, is essentially a limited convention that departs from its prescribed mandate and proceeds to consider proposals in a range of issues that were not included in the original “call.”

In the 1910’s, the United States was one state short of seeing a constitutional convention for the purpose of whether to require the direct election of Senators (instead of via state legislatures). Ultimately, the 17th Amendment was passed and the convention calls were silenced.

In this case, however, it is difficult to see a common issue around which the states are rallying, which leaves some concerned about the “runaway” convention scenario.

Ultimately, it will be up to the states to decide whether a convention is needed. It could be many years before that ends up happening.

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