Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding
The article was published in 1992 and is entitled A New Constitutional Convention? Critical Look at Questions Answered, and Not Answered, by Article Five of the United States Constitution. It was authored by John Eidsmoe.
The article contains many of the inaccuracies about the amendments convention process that were common in 1992—such as the claim that the 1787 gathering was called by Congress, that it was called only to amend the Articles of Confederation, that the delegates exceeded their power, and that an Article V convention is a “ConCon.” All of those inaccuracies have been corrected in the ensuing years.
Unfortunately, the article includes other slips that should not have occurred even in 1992. One of these is the unusual assertion that when the Constitutional Convention added the amendment convention procedure, the delegates simply made a hasty mistake!
The article acknowledged that the delegates added the procedure on Sept. 15, 1787 “to guard against an unresponsive congress.” But it stated that “in contrast to the meticulous care the Framers exercised in deliberating on various other provisions of the Constitution, the Concon provision of Article V was added rather hastily, at a time when the delegates were preparing to close their deliberations; and this provision did not receive the careful attention given to most other provisions of the Constitution.”
In fact, however, the amendments convention procedure was not a new idea, but had been under consideration for weeks. It was based on provisions in several state constitutions and the delegates in Philadelphia had been discussing it well before anyone proposed the congressional method!
Thus the Constitution’s first draft, presented by the Committee of Detail on August 6, contemplated a convention of states as the sole mechanism for amendments:
“On the application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the States in the Union, for an amendment of this Constitution, the Legislature of the United States shall call a Convention for that purpose.”
Several delegates supported granting Congress direct power to propose as well, so the wording became:
The Legislature of the United States, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem necessary, or on the application of two thirds of the Legislatures of the several States, shall propose amendments to this Constitution . . . .
But this version had the unwitting effect of giving Congress sole power to propose. That went too far, and that is why George Mason successfully recommended re-inserting the convention of states as a proposal mechanism to bypass Congress.
The author speculated that the delegates’ supposed haste was why “there are many unanswered questions about the nature and effect of an Article V convention.” But the actual reason for the supposedly “unanswered questions” is simply because there was no need to go into detail: Americans had previously held many conventions among states and colonies, and were fully familiar with the procedures.
Now, it would be unfair to charge the author with findings about convention history that were made after 1992. However, the author should have known that the amendments convention procedure was vetted and discussed repeatedly during a ratification process that lasted nearly three years. Indeed, the procedure seems to have had an important role in securing public agreement to the Constitution.
For the history of publications about Article V, see Part I of my legal treatise, State Initiation of Constitutional Amendments: A Guide for Lawyers and Legislative Drafters.
* * * *
* Some constitutional scholars give the title “Whac-A-Mole” to convention opponents’ tactics of inventing new arguments after earlier arguments have been discredited. The later arguments are sometimes inconsistent with the former.
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding, supreme court
Some people have asked for further clarification on why the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause does not grant Congress power to use its convention call to regulate a Convention for Proposing Amendments.
This is a technical area and can be difficult to grasp (or explain, for that matter). You have to understand the nature of the Necessary and Proper Clause, analyze its wording, and put together a variety of judicial rulings.
Accordingly, I’ve expanded my review of the subject. You can find it here.
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding, supreme court
A little known aspect of our Constitution is that it delegates power, not just to the U.S. Government and to its units, but also to persons and entities outside the U.S. Government. In each case, the power to act is derived ultimately from the Constitution. Even when those persons or entities are states or officeholders of states, their authority derives from the Constitution rather than from the pool of authority retained by the states under the Tenth Amendment.
The Constitution’s delegations of power to actors outside the U.S. Government are surprisingly plentiful. The first listed in the Constitution is Article I, Section 2, Clause 1 [“I-2-1”], which implicitly authorizes each state to define qualifications for the U.S. Representatives from that state. The Seventeenth Amendment extended this authority to include U.S. Senators.
I-2-4 empowers (and directs) state governors to “issue Writs of Election” to fill vacancies in the House of Representatives.
The original Constitution (I-3-1) also delegated authority to each state “Legislature” to elect U.S. Senators. The word “Legislature” was meant literally: The delegation was to the state representative assembly. It was not to the general state legislative authority, which the assembly might share with the governor (through the veto) or the people (through initiative and referendum). In other words, election of Senators was not subject to the governor’s approval, nor could it be handed off to the people. In addition, I-3-2 empowered each governor to temporarily fill senate vacancies during a legislative recesses. This situation continued until the Seventeenth Amendment moved Senate elections to the voters at large. That amendment also conferred on state legislatures power to authorize the governor to make temporary appointments.
The Supreme Court has held that another grant to each state “Legislature” (I-4-1) actually is a grant to the broader legislative authority rather than merely to the state’s representative assembly alone. The Times, Places and Manner clause allows each state to regulate the “Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives.” Because the grant is to the general legislative authority rather than to elected assembly, the governor can veto such regulations, and the people can make them through the initiative process or approve or reject them through referendum, if the state constitution so provides.
The Constitution further bestowed on state legislatures a veto over congressional acquisitions under the Enclave Clause (I-8-17) and over proposed state divisions and combinations (IV-3-1).
Article II, Section 1 empowers “Each State” to choose the method of selecting presidential electors from that state. The same section, coupled with the Twelfth Amendment, authorizes the electors to choose the President. Again, both powers derive from the Constitution, not from those retained under the Tenth Amendment.
The Guarantee Clause (Article IV, Section 4) grants state legislatures the legal capacity to compel the federal government to protect them against “domestic Violence,” and it gives like capacity to state governors when the legislature cannot be convened.
Article V, which governs the amendment process, grants power to four kinds of assemblies: Congress, state legislatures, state conventions, and a federal convention to propose amendments. The courts tell us that in Article V matters, these assemblies act independently, and not as branches of any government.
Article VI empowers, and directs, state judges to apply the Constitution as the “Supreme Law of the Land.”
When an entity outside the government exercises authority conferred by the Constitution, the Supreme Court says it exercises a “federal function.” However, the Court also has made clear that exercising a federal function does not convert an independent entity into a part of the U.S. government.
One interesting implication of these grants, as I noted in an earlier posting, is that they fall outside the incidental federal legislative power defined in the Necessary and Proper Clause. This is because the Necessary and Proper Clause generally excludes laws not directed to the federal government or to “Departments” and “Officers” of that government.
Apparently in recognition of this, the framers provided for several compensating grants to the federal legislature (i.e., Congress-subject-to-presidential-veto). The Times, Places and Manner Clause permits Congress to regulate, to a certain extent, a governor’s writ of election and to overrule most state regulations of congressional elections. (I-4-1). Moreover, even though states are primarily responsible for selecting presidential electors, Congress may dictate “the time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes.” (II-1-4). And in the amendment process, Congress calls the convention and chooses among two modes of ratification.
A new II Backgrounder contains a brief and clear explanation of how the people, through their state legislatures, can address federal dysfunction while bypassing Congress.
The Backgrounder is the first publication of II’s new “Article V Information Center.”
You can read it here.
This article originally appeared at The American Thinker.
The Article V Handbook, which I authored for the American Legislative Exchange Council, emphasizes that citizens pressing for constitutional amendments should avoid fringe or unpopular proposals. The Handbook distills four guiding principles for selecting amendments worthy of support:
(1) An amendment should move America back toward Founding principles.
(2) The amendment should enact substantial, rather than merely symbolic or marginal, reform.
(3) The amendment should enjoy supermajority support among the public. There must be room for slippage once opponents begin to attack the proposal.
(4) It should address a subject that state lawmakers of both political parties can understand and appreciate.
“As of this writing,” the Handbook adds, “a balanced budget amendment probably meets all four criteria; an amendment to abolish the income tax probably does not.”
Measured by subsequent success, those four principles have been vindicated. Since the Handbook was published in 2011, seven states have adopted BBA applications—far more than on any other topic. No legislature has adopted an amendment to repeal the income tax.
By my count, there are now 21 valid, aggregable BBA applications outstanding. The 2014 elections created a favorable political environment in the states, so the number may approach the required 34 by the end of next year. However, as BBA activists have long understood, drafting a politically and practically viable balanced budget amendment presents a considerable challenge. One reason lies in the nature of the amendment: establishing rules for budgeting is complicated. But there are other difficulties as well.
The amendment has to have teeth without threatening effective government. The balanced budget rule must take effect without unnecessary delay, but not so fast as to be overly disruptive. It should permit deficit spending in emergencies, but the emergency clause must not be easily manipulable. It must be enforceable without ceding the budget process to the courts. The amendment must be comprehensive enough to do the job, but not overly detailed.
Fortunately, history offers us some valuable drafting lessons. The relevant history includes experience both with state fiscal restraints and with prior U.S. constitutional amendments. Very instructive is the history of the 14th amendment, a critical and necessary measure that almost failed of ratification because of poor authorship.
Here are some drafting suggestions. This list is not exhaustive:
* Keep it short. Americans treasure their Constitution’s brevity, and will be suspicious of an amendment that looks like an economics treatise. Also, the longer a proposal, the more there is for opponents to pick apart. Tax and expenditure limitations in some state constitutions are far too long to suit the U.S. Constitution. At about 425 words, the 14th amendment proved too detailed, and offered opponents much fodder for attack.
* Make the substance fit. An amendment’s substance should blend with the “spirit” of the rest of the Constitution. For example, the federal government is wholly representative in nature, so requiring national popular referenda would be a major, and probably unacceptable, departure.
* Make the language fit. The amendment’s language should be consistent with the rest of the Constitution. If the draft employs words appearing elsewhere in the document, make sure the usages are consistent. Endless disputes have arisen over the 14th amendment’s phrases “privileges or immunities” and “due process of law,” because it is unclear whether the critical words in those phrases mean the same as in other parts of the Constitution.
* As a corollary: Avoid modern technical phrases such as “gross domestic product” or “discretionary spending.” Technical terms engender popular suspicion because everyone knows they can be manipulated. Moreover, as time passes the meaning of technical terms can be forgotten. For several years now, I’ve made a living explaining the Constitution’s many technical phrases to Americans who had forgotten what they were supposed to communicate. That should not have been necessary.
* Don’t overreach. Drafting an overly-strict amendment is one kind of overreach. Another kind of overreach is adding bells and whistles to win the support of particular groups. To be politically acceptable, a BBA should be “clean.” It should feature neither exemptions for entitlements (favored by liberals) nor anti-tax add-ons (favored by conservatives). Bells and whistles create the perception of favoritism and probably will not convince BBA skeptics anyway.
* Avoid numbers and formulae. They create public suspicion and people find them hard to understand. (Most people find the formula in Section 2 of the 14th amendment, for example, to be inscrutable.) Formulae and numbers also are manipulable: Experience with state tax and expenditure limitations shows that a 5% annual “ceiling” often becomes a 5% annual floor.
* Don’t concede the constitutionality of the welfare state. Proposals that assume the validity of existing programs may prejudice future litigation over the validity of those programs. Current spending practices also are inconsistent with the founding-era principle of limited government. Any such a concession will provoke opposition among the fiscally-conservative activists necessary to ensure ratification.
* Favor procedure over substance. Some of the Constitution’s most effective provisions create checks and balances rather than merely mandating “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” Instead of defining the “emergency” that justifies a deficit, the amendment should include a special procedure for authorizing it.
* Be very careful with legislative supermajority requirements. Because of how group dynamics work, an excessive supermajority requirement in an assembly the size of the House of Representatives may actually increase deficits. Drafters should consult existing social science research on this topic, or rely on other mechanisms instead.
Readers with additional suggestions should email them to me at email@example.com.
Earlier this year, I documented one of the reasons we know an Article V convention is a “convention of the states” rather than a mass popular gathering: Founding Era documents tell us so. I listed several such documents. (Subsequent to the Founding, in the case of Smith v. Union Bank, the Supreme Court also referred to an Article V convention as a “convention of the states.”)
Here is another piece of evidence:
In 1788, New York ratified the Constitution, but the state ratifying convention called for extensive amendment. In a circular letter to the other states, it urged that an amendments convention be called. On February 4, 1789, therefore, the New York state assembly, the lower house of the legislature, debated whether to submit an application to Congress for an Article V convention. Only four assemblymen spoke to the issue, but two of them characterized the gathering as a “convention of the states.”
Both of those two were highly significant figures. Samuel Jones had been a key member of the ratifying convention. So also had John Lansing, Jr., a respected judge. Lansing, furthermore, had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention itself.
No one called the amendments convention anything else, although the eventual application used the term “Convention of Deputies from the several States.” The term “Deputy” was a synonym for “agent”—in this case, the agent of one’s state.
You can read the legislative proceedings in volume 23 of the Documentary History of the Ratification of the United States Constitution.
I have updated the earlier posting accordingly.
Some people claim the rules pertaining to the Constitution’s “Convention for Proposing Amendments” are largely unknown, but there actually is quite a lot of law on the subject.
Earlier this year, I pulled together that body of law in a legal treatise entitled “State Initiation of Constitutional Amendments: A Guide for Lawyers and Legislative Drafters.” This is actually the latest of several legal treatises I’ve written on various subjects for national publishers, mostly on constitutional and property law.
Section 3.9 of the treatise deals with the rules by which Congress must call the convention. That section has now been updated and supplemented extensively. You can read the treatise here. It is primarily designed for legal professionals, but many lay people will find it useful.
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding, supreme court
The past week saw yet another assault on those reformers who seek to cure federal dysfunction by promoting a “Convention for proposing Amendments.”
The latest attack took the form of an opinion column that in content offered nothing new. It featured many of the usual errors of commission and omission: The author confused a “Convention for proposing Amendments” with a constitutional convention. He alleged that convention protocols are unknown, and that “anything goes” with “no rules, guideposts, or procedures.” He asserted that the courts won’t provide any guidelines and that the convention would threaten “the freedoms we take for granted under the Bill of Rights.” He demonstrated no awareness whatsoever of the history behind the amendment process nor of the long line of judicial decisions, from the Supreme Court and other tribunals, prescribing ground rules for that process.
But this alarmist column was distinctive in two respects. It was not penned by one of the conspiracy types with whom we usually associate such stuff. It was written by Robert Greenstein, a Washington, D.C. insider who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations and on the Obama transition team. Moreover, the medium of publication was the liberal establishment’s iconic newspaper, the Washington Post.
So why are pillars of the liberal establishment picking up the flag from rightwing conspiratorialists?
The answer to this question has three parts:
* They are resorting to a playbook that was, in fact, scripted not by conservatives but by the Left;
* the Left has a great deal to lose if the convention movement goes forward; and
* at least some establishment Leftists have become concerned about reformers’ recent successes.
First, as to the playbook:
For many years after the Founding, no one seems to have confused an amendments convention with a constitutional convention. For decades, everyone seems to have recognized that an amendments convention was a convention of states that—like all previous interstate gatherings—was nothing more than a diplomatic task force of state government representatives (”commissioners”) operating under a prescribed agenda.
At the turn of the last century, however, when state legislatures were applying for a convention to propose direct election of U.S. Senators, a few opponents began to contend that any such gathering would be a “constitutional convention.” During the 1960s and 1970s, the liberal establishment elaborated this contention into the “runaway convention” scenario often advanced today.
Several perceived threats precipitated the Left’s invention of the runaway scenario. The first was an effort by Senator Everett Dirksen (R.-Ill.) for a convention to propose an amendment overruling the Supreme Court’s legislative reapportionment decisions. The second was a movement to adopt a federal balanced budget amendment. The third was talk of a convention to propose an amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s abortion decision in Roe v. Wade.
Russell Caplan’s book Constitutional Brinksmanship (Oxford University Press, 1988) chronicles some of the methods the Left used to respond to those perceive threats. Senators Robert Kennedy (D.-N.Y.) and Joe Tydings (D.-Md.) led opposition in the Senate, and several Kennedy associates, such as Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Goldberg, led a public disinformation campaign. Various liberal academics also participated.
Perhaps the most heated anti-convention rhetoric came from the New Yorker’s Richard Rovere, a Kennedy sycophant. Rovere charged that a convention could “reinstate segregation and even slavery; throw out much or all of the Bill of Rights . . eliminate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process clause . . . and perhaps, for good measure, eliminate the Supreme Court itself.” In the 1980s, Chief Justice Warren Burger, apparently concerned for the power of his court, adopted a less heated version of the same line.
From the participants’ viewpoint, the disinformation campaign was an unqualified success: It frightened enough people effectively to disable one of the Constitution’ most important checks and balances. Unfortunately, it was a disaster for the country, because it removed a crucial constitutional curb on federal overreaching.
During next 20 years, figures on the political Left found it unnecessary to do their own heavy lifting because many naive conservatives did it for them by alarming enough people to defeat all efforts to impose restraint, fiscal or otherwise, on Washington, D.C.
A few years ago, however, the tide began to change. Several scholars, I among them, undertook previously-neglected legal and historical research into the amendment procedure. We restored for all to read the rules as the Founders understood them and as the courts apply them. Then Mark Levin publicized these findings in his best-selling book, The Liberty Amendments.
Empowered by this new information, state lawmakers began to resume their constitutional responsibilities in the amendment process. Most state legislatures now participate in the Assembly of State Legislatures, an organization planning for a possible amendments convention. Since 2011, at least 11 states have adopted at least 15 formal applications for a convention. Most of those applications are targeted at federal fiscal excess.
Obviously, reinvigorating of a procedure by which the people, acting through their state legislatures, can check federal overreaching, is not something that people like Mr. Greenstein and other Washington, D.C. power brokers want to see. It poses to them the threat of authority seeping out of Washington and back to the state capitals and to the people at large. Hence their wish to bury the movement as quickly as they can. If scaremongering from the Right won’t do the job, then they’ll try scaremongering from the Left.
Several years ago, I advised reformers that they would know they were winning when the liberal establishment stopped using misguided conservatives as cannon fodder, and entered the fray directly. That has now happened.
I further advised that the power of the Left would pose a far greater challenge than the arguments of conservatives. Reformers have largely overcome the lesser challenge. America’s future depends heavily on whether they can overcome the greater.
The Famous Case of Coleman v. Miller—and, No, It Doesn’t Give Congress Total Control Over the Amendment Process
Not long ago, I was listening to a radio talk show and was assured by a caller that the Supreme Court, in the case of Coleman v. Miller, had delegated all important decisions over the amendment process to Congress. In other words, the caller said, Congress can make all decisions on every amendment issue: how states apply for a convention, how the convention conducts its business, whether amendments are ratified, etc., etc. Neither the states nor the courts would have anything to say about it.
Interesting assertion. Problem is, it’s not true.
The Supreme Court decided Coleman v. Miller in 1939. The case arose from a dispute over whether the Kansas legislature had properly ratified a proposed amendment to grant Congress authority over child labor. (All states banned child labor, but their laws were inconsistent.) The amendment had been pending for over 13 years, and the Kansas legislature earlier had rejected it.
So one question was whether Kansas could ratify an amendment after its earlier rejection. Another was whether Kansas could ratify an amendment 13 years after it was proposed. Still another was whether the lieutenant governor should have been allowed to cast a vote in an evenly-divided state senate. And there also was an issue of whether the plaintiffs had standing.
The Kansas Supreme Court upheld the ratification, and all those issues went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion was written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, an old-line progressive with a sterling legal reputation. This is how he ruled:
* The plaintiffs had standing.
* Apparently because the Supreme Court justices were evenly divided (one justice may not have participated) on whether they could consider the lieutenant governor issue, the Kansas court’s judgment upholding the lieutenant governor’s vote was sustained.
* Historical practice had been to leave to Congress the decision of whether a state ratification was valid if the same state had earlier (or later) rejected it.
* There was no way the Court could judge how long a proposed amendment might last. That was a judgment for Congress to make—by, for example, inserting a time limit in its original proposal.
The case certainly does not hold that Congress has complete control of the amendment process. I’ll address below where that misconception came from.
Two holdings in Coleman v. Miller were particularly notable, but only one remains important today. The Court’s rulling that it couldn’t judge how long a proposed amendment lasted is no longer relevant. That’s because America agreed in 1992 that proposed amendments lasted forever, unless they were withdrawn. We so agreed when we ratified the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which Congress had proposed in 1789, more than two centuries earlier.
The part of the Coleman case still important today is its holding that courts interpret Article V in light of history. It was history that told the Court that Congress could resolve the conflict between a state’s ratification and its rejection. In this respect, though, Coleman is not unique: Both before and since, many judicial decisions have followed history in interpreting Article V.
Coleman also seems to clarify (although not entirely) that when Congress imposes a time limit on ratifying an amendment it proposes, Congress can do so because the time limit is part of its proposal. In other words, Congress’s authority to impose time limits doesn’t come from its prerogative to choose between the state convention and state legislative “modes of ratification,” as an earlier case had decided. It comes from its authority to propose. The implication is this: Although Congress can time-limit its own proposed amendments, it cannot impose time limits on an amendment proposed by an amendments convention.
Two justices dissented from the Court’s holding. They argued that the Child Labor Amendment proposal had expired. Four others concurred in the result, arguing that the plaintiffs had no standing.
There was another concurring opinion, too—this one written by Justice Hugo Black for himself and three colleagues. He claimed Congress enjoyed complete control over the amendment process and the courts had no power to review any of Congress’s decisions on that process. That’s where the misunderstanding about Coleman started. The notion that everything should be left to Congress did not come from the Court’s holding, but from the views of a minority.
Of course, anyone who reads Article V knows that the Black position was nonsense. Not surprisingly, subsequent court cases have rejected it repeatedly.
So why did Black make such a claim?
In 1939, the Court was entering the time period in which it was probably more deferential to Congress and the President than at any other time in our history. (Just five years later, Black was to write the Court’s decision in Korematsu v. U.S., deferring to the decision of Congress and the President to herd tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent into concentration camps.)
Everyone knew that FDR had been considering constitutional amendments, and that he had the support of strong majorities in Congress. Black, who until recently had been a U.S. Senator closely allied to FDR, was still more of a politician than a jurist. Allies of FDR—such as Black and two of the other justices who joined his opinion—may have wanted to emphasize congressional control over the amendment process.
Such notions of extreme judicial deference to Congress are long gone. I doubt that the Black opinion would garner the support of even one Supreme Court justice today.
A few days ago I heard a presentation by a spokesman for a group that claims to defend the Constitution and revere the Founders. Yet the spokesman trashed the Constitution’s framers for allegedly exceeding their authority and claimed they added a provision that largely rendered another provision useless. In other words, the spokesman charged the framers with being both (1) dishonorable and (2) incompetent.
The framers inserted the “Convention for proposing Amendments” in the Constitution to provide the states with a way of obtaining constitutional amendments without federal interference. Tench Coxe, a leading advocate for the Constitution during the ratification debates, pointed out that the convention device allows the states to obtain whatever amendments they choose “although the President, Senate and Federal House of Representatives, should be unanimously opposed to each and all of them.” (Italics in original.)
The spokesman, however, asserted that the Constitution allowed Congress, through the Necessary and Proper Clause, to dictate, either in the convention call or by previous legislation, how an amendments convention is structured and how commissioners (delegates) are selected and apportioned.
The claim that Congress can use the Necessary and Proper Clause to structure the convention was first advanced in the 1960s, and has been repeated numerous times since then. A Congressional Research Service report published earlier this year noted that some in Congress have taken the same line, although the report did not actually endorse it.
But pause to consider: Why would the framers place in the Constitution a method by which Congress could largely control a convention created to bypass Congress? Were that framers that stupid?
Of course not. Most of them were highly experienced and extremely deft legal drafters.
Behind the belief that the Necessary and Proper Clause empowers Congress to structure the convention are three distinct assumptions—all erroneous: They are (1) that the scope of Congress’s authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause is broader than it is, (2) that the Clause covers the amendment process, and (3) that ordinary legislation may govern the amendment process.
The Necessary and Proper Clause is the last item in the Article I, Section 8 list of congressional powers. It reads:
The Congress shall have Power . . . To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
It happens that the most extensive treatment of the Necessary and Proper Clause is an academic book I co-authored with Professors Gary Lawson, Guy Seidman, and Geoff Miller: The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge University Press, 2010) (cited by Justice Thomas in a Supreme Court case earlier this year and apparently relied on by Chief Justice Roberts in 2012). This book reveals the Necessary and Proper Clause to be a masterpiece of legal draftsmanship.
The Clause was based on usage common in 18th-century legal documents. It is not a grant of authority, but a rule of interpretation. It tells us to construe certain enumerated powers as the ratifiers understood them rather than in an overly-narrow way. In legal terms, the Necessary and Proper Clause informs us that those enumerated powers include “incidental” authority.
Even if the Clause did apply to the amendment process, the authority “incidental” to Congress’s call would be quite narrow. An entity that calls an interstate convention always has been limited to specifying the time, place, and subject matter. It is the state legislatures who control selection of their own commissioners, thank you very much.
But in fact the Necessary and Proper Clause does not extend to the amendment process. To explain:
The Constitution includes numerous grants of power. These grants are made to Congress, to the President, to the courts, to the electoral college, and to state legislatures, state governors, and various conventions. An entity exercising a power under one of those grants is said to exercise a “federal function.”
The Necessary and Proper Clause is crafted to apply to most federal functions, but it also excludes a number of them. Specifically, it covers only the grants listed in Article I, Section 8, and those vested in the “Government of the United States” and in “Departments” and “Officers” of that government.
In other words, the Clause omits constitutional grants made to entities that are not part of the “Government of the United States,” even when those entities exercise “federal functions.” See, for example, Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214 (holding that presidential electors, who ultimately derive their power from the Constitution, exercise a federal function but are not federal officers or agents). Among other the entities exercising federal functions but not acting as part of the U.S. government are (1) state legislatures regulating congressional election law, prescribing selection of presidential electors, ratifying constitutional amendments, providing for state ratifying conventions, applying under the Guarantee Clause, or (before the 17th amendment) choosing U.S. Senators, (2) state governors issuing writs of election to fill congressional vacancies or applying under the Guarantee Clause, (3) state ratifying conventions, and (4) the convention for proposing amendments.
Yes, but Congress calls the convention. Could Congress use the Necessary and Proper Clause to regulate itself as a calling agency on the ground that it (Congress) is a “Department” of the federal government?
Highly unlikely. Allowing Congress to insert binding regulations in the convention call would allow it to do indirectly what it is forbidden to do directly: regulate the convention. That flies in the face of established legal principles.
Moreover, Congress may never be a “Department” of government as the Necessary and Proper Clause uses the word: The term “department” appears three times in the original Constitution, and in both of the other two cases, it means only the executive departments. So to make the Necessary and Proper Clause apply, you would have to assume the word “department” in that Clause means something different from what it means in the rest of the Constitution.
But even if we assume that Congress is a “department” for most purposes, we still have to recognize that the rules for Article V are different.
The difference is that (according to the courts) when Congress and state legislatures act in the amendment process they do not act as the legislative branches of their respective governments. Instead, they act as ad hoc assemblies for registering the popular will. They can exercise only the power granted by Article V, and not powers granted by other parts of the U.S. Constitution or by state constitutions. Thus, in Idaho v. Freeman (1981), a federal court ruled that “Congress, outside the authority granted by Article V, has no power to act with regard to an amendment, i.e., it does not retain any of its traditional authority vested in it by Article I” [which is where the Necessary and Proper Clause is located]. (This case was later vacated as moot, but there were no problems with the merits of the ruling.) Or, as the Supreme Court of Missouri pointed out when addressing the state legislature’s Article V functions, “[The legislature] was not, strictly speaking, performing the functions of a legislative body for the state, but was acting as a representative of the people, pursuant to authority delegated to it by the federal Constitution. . . ” State ex rel. Tate v. Sevier (1933). (The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari, meaning it refused to consider reversing this decision.)
Again, legislatures act under Article V they do so as separate assemblies, not as the legislative branches of their governments. This is a very old principle, dating back to 1798, when the Supreme Court held that when Congress proposes amendments, it does does not need presidential signature, as it does when it acts as the federal legislature.. See also United States v. Sprague (1931).
Well, if Congress cannot insert language in the “call” structuring the convention, can it pass laws for the same purpose? Again, the answer is “no.” A long list of 20th century cases from courts at all levels holds that the amendment process is governed by the express and implied provisions of Article V, not by other sources of law, such as statutes or state constitutions. See, for example, Leser v. Garnett (1922) and Dyer v. Blair (1975).