Yet Another Multi-State Convention Uncovered

March 11, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding 

2009 RGN

For many years, opponents of a convention for proposing amendments argued that the law governing such a convention was unknowable because the only precedent for such a gathering was the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

This was always an ignorant claim, since even high schoolers learn that Annapolis, Maryland hosted a “convention of states” the previous year. Russell Caplan’s book, Constitutional Brinksmanship, published nearly three decades ago, documented several other interstate and inter-colonial conventions as well. It was clear that those claiming the “only precedent” was the 1787 gathering had not done their homework.

In 2010 I uncovered more multi-state conventions, and 2013 published an article that listed 32 such gatherings from 1689 through 1787. Twenty-four of these were regional—or, to use the Founding-Era word, “partial”—conventions. The other six were national, or as the Founders would say, “general.” In that article I also analyzed in detail the records of fourteen of these conclaves. All of them employed pretty much the same set of protocols.

In addition, on this website I’ve discussed several conventions of states occurring after the Constitution was adopted: regional conventions at Hartford (1814), Nashville (1850), and Santa Fe (1922), and a general convention in Washington, D.C. (1861). The last of these was convened to draft a constitutional amendment. Yet, believe or not, some people are still asserting that “We have only one Precedent, the Convention in Philadelphia in 1787!

Now there’s more. I recently obtained the journal for still another convention of states. Some have claimed that the proceedings for that assembly were never recorded, or perhaps had been lost. But I found them within the first volume of the journals of the Congress of the Confederate States of America.

The convention in question was held in 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama. It included only those southern states that failed to attend the convention in Washington, D.C. And while the purpose of the Washington meeting was to head off the Civil War, the purpose of the Montgomery meeting was much less desirable: to write a new Confederate Constitution and to serve as a provisional government until elections were held under that Constitution.

However regrettable its purpose, though, there is no denying that the Montgomery Convention is useful precedent. It demonstrates yet again the consistent understanding throughout our history of the law and rules governing multi-state conventions. While unionist states were applying the standard protocols at their gathering in Washington, seceding states were applying almost exactly the same set of protocols in Montgomery.

Here are some other facts about the Montgomery Convention of 1861:

* It was called by South Carolina and by Alabama—South Carolina sent out the initial invitation and fixed the topic. Alabama fixed the time and place.

* The other states participating were Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and (belatedly) Texas.

* The calls and acceptances agreed on the two basic missions: (1) write a constitution for the seceding states and (2) serve as a provisional government until elections were held under that constitution.

* The calls and acceptances did differ in minor ways. Possibly the most important was that some stated that the new Confederate constitution should be based on the U.S. Constitution, while others omitted that term. This discrepancy did not prevent the meeting, and seems to have caused no problems.

* The convention began on February 4, 1861, and eventually split its functions to fit its two missions. From February 28 to March 11, it acted as a constitutional convention and wrote a new basic charter. Throughout its entire timespan it served as a provisional government (much as the Second Continental Congress had done for the United States from 1775 to 1781).

* The call suggested (and it was only a suggestion) that the convention proceed by one state/one vote, but that each state delegation consist of as many commissioners as the state had Senators and Representatives in the Federal Congress. The other states generally agreed to this formula.

* The convention did, in fact, proceed under a one state/one vote rule, as has every other interstate convention for which the rule of suffrage is recorded. But the size and composition of each state committee (delegation) remained a prerogative for each state to determine.

* The group elected its own officers and adopted its own rules. Like other all other conventions, it elected its president from among its members: Howell Cobb of Georgia. Like nearly all other conventions, it chose a non-delegate as secretary—Johnson J. Hooper of Alabama.

* The convention stayed within its two missions, as defined by its call.

* Upon completion of those missions, the gathering adjourned sine die (permanently).

King v. Burwell: The Latest Obamacare Mess at the Supreme Court

March 10, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, ObamaCare, supreme court 
A true environmentalist

A true environmentalist

When I first heard about King v. Burwell, the latest Obamacare controversy before the U.S. Supreme Court, I assumed it was the kind of case in which the legislative intent was clear, but for one reason or another the wording of the statute did not match the legislative intent.

That would have been an interesting case, because it would have given the Court a chance to struggle with age-old “intent vs. text” questions.

It turns out, though, that the legislative intent is unclear—if there was any unified intent at all. And the statute is at least as messy as the evidence of intent.

First as the intent: Whether Congress intended for tax credits to go to citizens of states that had not adopted state insurance exchanges depends on whom you ask. The government now says “yes,” but Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber was captured in two separate YouTube videos saying “no.” In those videos, he claims that tax credits were to be limited to states that set up their own exchanges as a way of inducing states to cooperate (no exchange, no tax credits). Some in the media assert that a decision for the plaintiffs (limiting credits to insurance purchased on state-created exchanges) would create “chaos”—but if Gruber is right, then that was exactly what Congress wanted.

Now for the text: Reading the record in this case give you some idea of how poorly drafted the Obamacare law is. Section 1311(b)(1) of the statute requires the states to establish exchanges. A provision just a few sections later (1321(b)) tells states they may elect to establish exchanges, and another (1321(c)) provides for federally-created substitutes.

Still another section says that tax credits are available for insurance purchased on “exchanges.” In at least two provisions, the statute inserts cross references that make it crystal clear it means state-created exchanges—not the federally-created substitutes.

But still other provisions seem to assume that state-created exchanges, and therefore the tax credits, will exist in all states. But for this to be so, then the statute’s drafters had to assume that the first section (mentioned above) ordering the states to set up such exchanges was valid. Problem is, that section is clearly unconstitutional: The Supreme Court has ruled several times that the federal government may not simply order a state to adopt a law or perform a task. Whoever wrote that section had never studied elementary constitutional law, or perhaps didn’t care.

There’s another wrinkle: The way the case got to the Supreme Court is that the plaintiffs challenged an IRS interpretation of the statute. Specifically, the IRS read the law as requiring tax credits in all states. Now, as a rule of thumb (under the Court’s Chevron holding), the Court defers to any reasonable executive-branch interpretation of an ambiguous statute. But the traditional legislative grace canon holds that the Chevron rule doesn’t apply in tax-credit cases, because taxation is so central to the legislative (as opposed to the executive) power.

One argument for tax credits in all states, possibly originated by Justice Kennedy, acknowledges that the law’s mandate on states to create exchanges is unconstitutional. It also assumes that interpreting the statute to provide for credits only in states that establish their own exchanges would be unconstitutional as excessive federal “coercion.” This argument therefore concludes that the statute must be construed to provide for tax credits in all states.

There are two problems with this argument. First, if severe financial consequences for state non-cooperation constitute “coercion,” then certain other federal welfare programs, particularly Medicaid, are unconstitutional. It is unlikely that anyone who would advance this argument would really support that result. Second, by universalizing the tax credits, this argument rewards an overreaching federal government by authorizing it to spend even more money and thereby control even more lives than otherwise. It is an elementary legal principle that no one should be rewarded for his own wrong.

When faced with incurable problems in a statute, judges’ time-honored solution is to kick the issue back to the political branches for a solution. (The courts often follow a similar approach in the common law—that is, ruling in a way that forces the parties to negotiate their way out of the problem.)

Deciding the case for the plaintiffs (denying tax credits in states that do not adopt exchanges) will create either (1) a mess intended by Congress or (2) a mess not intended by Congress. Either way, the public anger generated by loss of tax credits will force Congress and the President to work together to clear matters up.

That’s exactly what the Supreme Court should do.

New Book About How Deborah—Judge and Biblical Heroine—Freed Israel From Terrorism!

March 6, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings 

Betty Natelson, my wife, has just published a new book—for readers 9 years and up—about the biblical heroine Deborah.

Deborah - Hebrew Judge

Deborah - Hebrew Judge

Deborah was the Hebrew judge who, along with her military commander Barak, liberated Israel from Canaanite terrorism—a topic that seems particularly appropriate today.

The book is entitled Battlesong: The Biblical Story of Deborah.

Battlesong generally follows the original in the Book of Judges, but in simple and inspiring English. Battlesong is published by Apis Books. You can pick up a copy for $6.99 in paperback here.

Battlesong, the front cover

Mike Stern Rebuts Claim that “Congress Would Control an Amendments Convention”

March 6, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, supreme court 

Article V scholar and former House of Representatives legal counsel Mike Stern has just written a response to the irresponsible claim that Congress could control a Convention for Proposing Amendments, either by specifying how commissioners are allocated or in other ways.

His response is worth wide publicity. Here it is:

RESPONSE TO FEBRUARY 24, 2015 PAPER ENTITLED “UNITED STATES CONGRESS V. CONVENTION OF STATES PROJECT”
I am writing to respond to the argument, circulated by opponents of HJR 1018, that Congress could by law attempt to exercise control over an Article V convention. Specifically, a piece circulated in the House on February 24, 2015 claims that “the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to determine the voting delegate count and the Supreme Court of the United States has already affirmed this.”
This claim is wrong as a matter of law. Moreover, as described below, there is no chance that Congress would attempt to regulate the Article V convention as suggested even if it had a colorable legal basis for doing so.

The argument for Congress’s supposed legal authority is premised entirely on a series of bills that were introduced in Congress from the late 1960s until 1992. These bills derived from legislation originally proposed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina to support a specific constitutional amendment designed to overturn the Supreme Court’s “one man one vote” decision in Reynolds v. Sims. It is important to note that no such legislation was ever enacted and it has been more than 20 years since it has even been introduced for consideration.
Senator Ervin explained the background for his legislation in a 1968 law review article:

Article V of the Constitution of the United States provides that constitutional amendments may be proposed in either of two ways—by two-thirds of both houses of the Congress or by a convention called for by the Congress in response to the applications of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Although the framers of the Constitution evidently contemplated that the two methods of initiating amendments would operate as parallel procedures, neither superior to the other, this has not been the case historically. Each of the twenty-five amendments ratified to date was proposed by the Congress under the first alternative. As a result, although the mechanics and limitations of congressional power under the first alternative, very little exists in the way of precedent or learning relating to the unused alternative method in article V. This became distressingly clear recently, following the disclosure that thirty-two state legislatures had, in one form or another, petitioned the Congress to call a convention to propose a constitutional amendment permitting states to apportion their legislatures on the basis of some other standard that the Supreme Court’s “one man-one vote” requirement. The scant information and considerable misinformation and even outright ignorance displayed on the subject of constitutional amendment, both within the Congress and outside of it—and particularly the dangerous precedents threatened by some of the constitutional misconceptions put forth—prompted me to introduce in the Senate a legislative proposal designed to implement the convention amendment provision in article V.

As the above passage makes clear, Senator Ervin’s legislation was designed to assist the states in calling for an amendments convention. Indeed, although Ervin’s legislation wrongly assumes that Congress has the power to legislate with regard to convention procedures, he also says that it would be “a flagrant disavowal of the clear language and intended function of article V” for the Congress to use this power in a manner that would thwart the states in their efforts to call a convention.

Ervin was primarily concerned with what he describes as the “considerable misinformation” and “constitutional misconceptions” being circulated by the opponents of an Article V convention. Of these the most important, which Ervin spends considerable time in refuting, is the idea that the convention cannot be limited. Ervin explains that this interpretation was “supported neither by logic nor constitutional history” and argues that “[t]his construction would effectively destroy the power of the states to originate the amendment of errors pointed out by experience, as Madison expected them to do.” It should be noted that opponents of the Article V convention still rely primarily on the constitutional misconception of the runaway convention, while cherry picking Ervin’s legislation for “precedent” they find more to their liking.

Unfortunately, Senator Ervin gave comparatively little attention to the question of Congress’s power to regulate the Article V convention. He merely observed that someone would need to provide for the membership and procedures of the convention and contended it would be impossible for all fifty state legislatures to do so. The original version of the legislation provided for one vote per state, but Ervin amended it to provide for proportional representation, apparently in the hope of reducing opposition from liberal senators who were opposed to any attempt to reverse Reynolds v. Sims.

In assessing whether Congress has the power to regulate voting at an Article V convention, two questions need to be asked: (1) does the Constitution provide for a default voting rule for the convention and (2) does Congress have the power to establish a voting rule or alter the default rule? Ervin seemed to assume, without analysis, that no default voting rule existed (hence his contention that Congress or all fifty states would have to act to establish such a rule). But this assumption is obviously wrong. If the Constitution provided no default rule, calling a convention would be impossible until Congress or the state legislatures established what rule would apply. Yet Article V clearly provides that once two-thirds of the state legislatures apply for a convention, Congress “shall” call the convention. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 85, the words of Article V are “preemptory” and “[n]othing in this particular is left to discretion.” Thus, there can be no requirement of other action, particularly by Congress, before a convention is called.

Once it is recognized that the Constitution provides a default voting rule, it is apparent that this rule must be one vote per state. This is true for the following reasons: (1) there are a number of different possible proportional representation methods (population, congressional representation, seats in the House, etc.) and nothing in Article V or the Constitution provides a basis for choosing among them; (2) one vote per state was the voting rule used in the Philadelphia convention and all interstate conventions prior to that time; (3) in respect to both applying for a convention and ratifying an amendment, Article V provides an equal vote to each state; (4) statements made during the debate over ratification, such as Hamilton’s observation that “whenever nine or rather ten states, were united in the desire of a particular amendment, that amendment must infallibly take place,” confirm an understanding of one vote per state; and (5) post-ratification history, including the procedure used during the Washington Convention of 1861, demonstrates that voting at Article V conventions was to be one vote per state.

As Ervin acknowledged in the passage quoted earlier, there was a paucity of “learning” regarding the Article V convention at the time he crafted his legislation. However, subsequent work by noted scholars such as Professor Rob Natelson and Michael Rappaport provides a much more detailed understanding of the Framers’ original intent with respect to the Article V convention. Professor Natelson’s research, for example, demonstrates that at the time of the framing there were well understood procedures for holding such a convention, including a one vote per state rule. Thus, although the resolutions of the states and the Confederation Congress calling for the Philadelphia Convention were silent (as is Article V) as to the voting rule to be used, the Philadelphia Convention employed a one vote per state rule without objection or controversy.

It is also apparent that Congress cannot, consistent with the purpose of the Article V convention, be permitted to establish or alter the voting rule for the convention, nor otherwise to exercise any authority that would infringe upon the independence of the states and the convention. The entire purpose of the Article V convention was to empower the states to obtain constitutional amendments without congressional authorization or assistance. Allowing Congress to control the convention through adoption of voting rules or other procedural requirements would fly in the face of this fundamental purpose of the convention.

The February 24, 2015 document circulated by opponents of HJR 1018 claims that Congress has the power under the Necessary and Proper Clause to prescribe rules for the convention. But for the reasons already discussed it would be neither necessary (because the Constitution provides a default voting rule) nor proper (because the convention must be completely independent of Congress) for Congress to regulate the convention. Moreover, the Necessary and Proper Clause applies to powers vested by the Constitution in “the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof,” which description does not include the Article V convention.

It is also suggested that the Supreme Court has somehow upheld Congress’s authority to regulate an Article V convention. This claim is obviously false since Congress has never passed such legislation and the Court has therefore never had occasion to consider it. The case cited for that proposition, Dillon v. Gloss, involved Congress’s authority to include a time limit for ratification in a congressionally proposed constitutional amendment. It had nothing to do with an Article V convention at all.

The Feb. 24 document cites a Congressional Research Service report for the proposition that the Ervin legislation and later proposals modeled on it establish Congress’s claim to “broad responsibilities” in connection with a convention. But the very same CRS report also acknowledges a strong argument for a “minimalist” role for Congress and notes there is “justification for this course of action from the pens of the founders themselves.” The original intent of the Framers is much more powerful legal support than the terms of comparatively recent legislation that never passed Congress.

In any event, there is no practical possibility that Congress would today be willing or able to enact legislation regulating an Article V convention. The fact that the Ervin legislation failed to pass Congress for more than 20 years should amply demonstrate that today’s Congress, more divided and dysfunctional than ever before, is never going to pass such legislation. In the extraordinarily unlikely event that such legislation were introduced, much less seriously considered, the states would have plenty of time to defeat the legislation or, if all else failed, to rescind their applications.

As a final red herring, the Feb. 24 document suggests that Congress could insulate delegates from control by their state legislatures by citing to a provision of the Ervin legislation that would provide delegates with a privilege against arrest. This provision would have simply provided delegates with standard legislative immunity that appears in the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions. The arrest privilege is extraordinarily narrow (applying only to arrest in civil cases, which makes it essentially meaningless) and was neither intended to nor would have the effect of interfering with state legislative control over their delegations.

New Study Shows Campaign Disclosure Rules Violate First Amendment

March 3, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court 

041410 Rob Natelson-2

This article was first published at the American Thinker website.

Many commentators and politicians have attacked the Supreme Court’s 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission for holding that citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights when they organize under state corporation law. The Vermont state legislature has even adopted an application for a federal convention to propose a constitutional amendment to “overturn[] the Citizens United decision.”

Almost no one seems to know that the Citizens United case contained another ruling in addition to the one on corporate issue campaigns. The other ruling should be just as controversial, for it upheld a broad congressional attack on the privacy of those exercising First Amendment rights. Yet the critics have been almost entirely silent about that part of the case.

In the second ruling, the Court sustained, over Justice Thomas’ sole dissent, a federal mandate that political issue committees publicly reveal the names of major donors. The Court did so although disclosure can lead to retaliation and personal harassment of individuals exercising First Amendment rights. In other cases, the Court has voided disclosure requirements that can result in free expression being unconstitutionally “chilled.” But the Court refused to do so in Citizens United.

The NYU Journal of Law and Liberty has just published an article in which I examine the question of whether forced disclosure of contributors to issue campaigns is consistent with the First Amendment, as the Founders understood it.

Here are my principal findings:

* Under the First Amendment, political advertising is best analyzed as a branch of “the freedom . . . of the press” rather than “freedom of speech.”

* During the Founding Era, the terms “liberty of the press” and “freedom of the press” were exact synonyms, with the former somewhat more common.

* Despite some peripheral uncertainties, the founding generation well understood the core meaning of “freedom of the press.” In other words, it was not a vague or indefinable term.

* During the Founding Era, the near-universal custom of those writing on political subjects of all kinds was to write either anonymously or under assumed names. Printers were expected to respect their contributors’ privacy by not revealing their true identity without explicit permission.

* There were important and completely legitimate reasons for author privacy, all of which continue to be valid today. In fact because of intervening changes in defamation law, those reasons may be stronger now than they were during the founding era.

* The historical record contains explicit statements that assert, or inescapably assume, that “freedom of the press” includes the right to conceal one’s identity. I found only one claim that forced disclosure was consistent with freedom of the press, but it referred to voluntary disclosure by a private printer, not government-forced disclosure.

* Under founding-era law, the right to privacy of identity ended in specific cases of “abuse.” When an author appeared to be guilty of one or more specific offenses, a prosecutor or other plaintiff could require the printer to disclose the name. These offenses included, but were not limited to, defamation, sedition, and treason. In the absence of such an offense, the author’s name was private and none of the government’s business.

A 1782 incident demonstrates the prevailing consensus:

An author had placed an article in a Philadelphia newspaper criticizing state government. Hearing that the editor had revealed the name of the critic to the governor (then William Moore), another writer accused the editor of “treachery.”

The editor felt compelled to respond. He explained that, although the governor had asked for the critic’s identity, the governor had asked for it only, “if you are at liberty to mention his name.”

In response to the governor’s request, the editor then asked the author whether the editor had permission to reveal his identity. The author responded, “You are at liberty to give my name to his excellency.” Only then did the editor disclose it.

This story shows how zealously author privacy was guarded during the Founding Era. Everyone assumed that freedom of the press incorporated a presumption of non-disclosure, even if the author had not asked to be kept anonymous. Editors and printers, as well as government officials, were subject to this norm.

Reading the historical record left me with the conviction that the Founders would have found mandatory disclosure of contributors to political advertising an outrageous violation of privacy — and certainly inconsistent with freedom of the press.

Chief Justice John Marshall: Not the Big Government Guy You Might Think

February 22, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, ObamaCare, The Founding, supreme court 
John Marshall

John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall (in office 1801-1835) is often identified with an expansive “big government” interpretation of the Constitution. Fans of big government cite him as an ally; opponents as an enemy.

This view of Marshall is a caricature. It is true that Marshall was a Federalist—he occupied a place on the political spectrum of his day closer to Alexander Hamilton than to Thomas Jefferson. But to say that he subscribed wholly to Hamilton’s constitutional views would be untrue. It is even more inaccurate to claim him as a justice who would uphold the constitutionality of the modern federal regulatory welfare state. Marshall was far more moderate than that.

The caricature of our greatest Chief Justice was created in his own time by his political opponents. In the modern era it has been nurtured by “progressives” who claim Marshall for their version of the Constitution. Among the latter group are Supreme Court justices who quote his words out of context, book authors who omit critical passages from his opinions, and law professors unfamiliar with other things Marshall wrote and with the law and language of his time.

In 2011, I authored an article correcting the record. I also co-authored another with the Independence Institute’s own Dave Kopel, explaining why Marshall would have held Obamacare to be unconstitutional.

Now Dr. Thomas K. Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation has joined in. A new contribution by Dr. Lindsay relies mostly on my research, but he introduces it to a new and much larger audience. You can read Dr. Lindsay’s essay here.

And here is my own detailed posting on the subject.

Trying to Abolish the Convention’s One-State/One-Vote Rule Not Only Would Be Unconstitutional—It Wouldn’t Be Worth Trying

February 6, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V 

2009 RGN

One of the far-fetched arguments used to persuade conservatives to oppose an amendments convention is that if 34 states apply, a left-wing Congress might try to dictate that commissioners (delegates) be allocated by population rather than by one state/one vote.

For reasons explained in earlier posts, such a move would be unconstitutional: A “convention for proposing amendments” is a meeting of equal semi-sovereigns, not a popular assembly (although the 38-state ratification requirement assures that any proposal has majority popular support before it is ratified). Because a central purpose of the convention is to bypass Congress, it is highly unlikely that either the courts or the states would acquiesce in such a maneuver.

Moreover, a successful effort along those lines is highly improbable politically: It would require a major change in the political composition of both houses of Congress. Indeed, it would require much more than that—because even when Congress was firmly Democratic, it repeatedly refused to pass legislation along those lines.

And it wouldn’t even be worthwhile to try, because converting the convention to a population basis wouldn’t make much political difference anyway. In the real world, over-representation from large “blue” states like California, New York, and Illinois would be offset by over-representation from large “red” states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

David Guldenschuh, a Georgia lawyer active in Article V issues, ran the numbers, and here is what he found:

* There are currently 30 states in which Republicans control both legislative chambers. There are 11 in which Democrats control both houses, eight are divided, and one (Nebraska) is non-partisan. So on a one-state, one vote basis, the “red” states would be comfortably in control of a convention. Divided chambers are likely to produce divided committees (delegations). By traditional rules, if a committee is evenly divided on an issue, it effectively abstains.

* The most liberal of the rejected congressional proposals was for a convention of 435 commissioners, one from each U.S. House district. (Another proposal, for allocation based on the electoral college, was slightly more conservative.)

* Consider the most liberal proposal: Based on the make-up of the current House, it still leaves “red states” (i.e., Republicans) comfortably in control: 246 to 188, with one vacancy.

* Or assume that the 435 are allocated according to the composition of each state legislature. The result then is 252 Republicans, 116 Democrats and 67 from split states—yet another a clear margin of “red state” control.

So how you allocate the commissioners does not really make that much political difference. That fact sharply reduces the motivation to try to reverse the “one state/one vote” rule.

Of course, future elections will result in voting shifts one way or the other. Although it is unlikely in the next few years, Democrats eventually will re-capture both Houses of Congress. But such changes do not happen in a vacuum—they are likely to be paralleled by corresponding changes in the state legislatures as well.

Let me be clear: It would not be constitutionally acceptable to depart from the historic rule. On the contrary, the courts tell us that the historic rules are effectively part of the Constitution’s Article V.

What these numbers do tell us is that neither party will have much motivation to try to change convention voting rules, even if they could.

What Is Tonnage?

February 4, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding 
Rob at the Trevi Fountain in Rome

Rob at the Trevi Fountain in Rome

Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 (I-10-3) of the Constitution forbids states from imposing any “Duty of Tonnage” without the consent of Congress.

During the Founding Era, tonnage was a levy imposed on the cargo capacity of ships entering or leaving harbors. As the Constitution’s words indicate, it was a species in a larger class of financial exactions known as duties.

If tonnage was imposed to raise money for government, it was (by usage prevalent in America) an indirect tax. If imposed only to, say, pay for harbor upkeep or inspection fees, it was a regulation of commerce but not a tax.

Several states, including Virginia and Massachusetts, imposed tonnage duties during the Confederation Era. They lost that right when the Constitution was adopted. Instead, tonnage was levied by the federal government pursuant to its power under I-8-1 to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises.” Because, however, Congress was forbidden to tax exports (I-9-5), it could lay tonnage on ships engaged in international trade only if those ships were entering (not leaving) an American harbor.

Pursuant also to I-9-6, tonnage duties had to be uniform throughout the United States. Congress could not discriminate among harbors by imposing heavier rates in some places than others.

New U.S. House Rule: A Hopeful Sign for an Amendments Convention

January 26, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V 

041410 Rob Natelson-2

As the likelihood of a Convention for Proposing Amendments increases, people are beginning to adjust to the idea.

A recent example is adoption of a new rule by the U.S. House of Representatives providing for the recording and public availability of state legislative applications for a convention. The rule change, sponsored by Rep. Steve Stivers (R.-OH), provides that the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee may transmit any such application to the House Clerk, and that “the Clerk shall make such . . . publicly available in electronic form, organized by State of origin and year of receipt.”

Although this is a modest change, it apparently is the first time either chamber of Congress has provided for an orderly way to handle and publicize Article V applications.

Another implication relates to the convention call. Under Article V, once Congress receives applications on a particular subject from two thirds of the state legislatures (34 of 50), it MUST call the convention. Nevertheless, for many years there has been concern that a ruthless congressional majority might stonewall by imposing unreasonable rules for counting applications or simply refuse to call or issue the call subject to unreasonable or unconstitutional terms. As the tone of Rep. Stivers’ news release announcing the change suggests, this rule change reduces those concerns.

This development also suggests what I am hearing elsewhere: A sizable contingent in Congress actually wants the state legislatures to get their act together and propose an amendment to fix a broken system.

What is an “Excise?”

January 25, 2015 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob in the Colorado Rockies

Rob in the Colorado Rockies

Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution reads as follows:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the Common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

The Constitution also requires that “direct taxes” be apportioned among states by population. The implication is that excises are not among those levies deemed “direct taxes”—so that excises must be uniform, but need not be apportioned.

At the time the Constitution was written, an excise was universally understood to be an “inland” (domestic) tax on the consumption of commodities, specifically on manufactured goods. To cite only a few of the many corroborating definitions:

* Thomas Sheridan’s 1789 English dictionary defined “excise” as “A tax levied upon commodities.”
* George Nicholas at the Virginia ratifying convention described excises as “a kind of tax on manufactures.”
* In Federalist No. 33, Alexander Hamilton wrote of “recourse . . . to excises, the proper objects of which are particular kinds of manufactures.”

Typically taxed by excises were alcoholic beverages, carriages, silks, and certain other items then considered luxuries, such as coffee, chocolate, and tea.

As an indirect tax, an excise was one kind of levy known generically as a “duty.”

By contrast, taxes on individuals (“capitations”), property, businesses, income, and the ordinary business of life were considered “direct.” The Constitution required them to be apportioned among the states.

In 1937, the Supreme Court decided Charles C. Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, in which the Court ruled that the Social Security tax on employers was an “excise,” and therefore did not have to be apportioned among the states. The Court cited three pre-constitutional tax statutes that were not imposed on commodities but, the Court claimed, were excises. All of the Court’s citations were bogus: None of the statutes were excises. Two were head taxes. The other was a non-excise duty.

The Steward Machine case illustrates the incompetent, and sometimes mendacious, methods the Supreme Court employed during the 1930s and 1940s—the very nadir of its history.*

In fact, the tax on employers was a classic direct tax and should have been apportioned among the states as Congress previously had apportioned other direct taxes.

Note: This column is based on research for my forthcoming article, tentatively entitled, What the Constitution Means by “Duties, Imposts, and Excises”—and Taxes (Direct or Otherwise)

* * * *

* Footnote: Some would argue that the Dred Scott case of 1857, a similarly mendacious decision, represented the Court’s nadir. But that was a single horrid case issued by an otherwise competent bench. At least on constitutional subjects, the Court during the 1930s and 1940s issued one poorly-crafted decision after another.

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