The recent bru-ha-ha in the Wisconsin legislature reminded all of us of a very fundamental rule that governs all parliamentary bodies.
You just can’t do any business without a quorum.
The stalemate in the Wisconsin Senate was temporary, of course. The Democrats were elected to serve in Madison, Wisconsin, and they couldn’t hole up in Illinois indefinitely.
Still, it was a procedural lesson well learned and visibly demonstrated, and it bears examining in an entirely different context.
OK. So flip the power point to a new slide. Let’s talk about an Article V Convention to propose amendments to the federal constitution. It’s the subject of a big debate.
There are basically two sides to the argument.
On the Pro side, there are many people and quite a few organizations who favor the calling of a convention. Almost all of them have an agenda. They want a convention to propose one or more specific amendments.
On the Con side, there are strident naysayers who insist that there is no such thing as a limited convention. They point out that Article V of the constitution authorizes the convention to propose amendments – in the plural – and therefore neither the states nor the Congress can limit its agenda.
They waive the scary flag of a ‘runaway convention,’ and conjure up all kinds of frightening notions like repealing the Bill of Rights, as though a convention could both propose and ratify a whole new constitution.
Unfortunately, the people on the Pro side of the argument are almost as afraid of the convention as their opponents.
As a result, you have all kinds of competing issue-specific advocates knocking on state legislative doors with their verbatim resolutions in hand calling for a convention for a single purpose and threatening to withdraw the application if anything else gets considered.
Article V requires Congress to call the convention if 2/3 of the states ask for it. Congress, of course, doesn’t want a convention because they fear it might trim their entitlements or limit their terms.
If all the Pro people could get together, there might well be 2/3 of the states demanding a convention. In fact there have been over 700 such petitions sent to Congress over the years. Congress has simply ignored them.
Many legal scholars side with Congress. They say the petitions have to be concurrent and compatible. That is, they must arrive in Washington at about the same time and deal with the same subject.
Of course, there’s nothing in Article V that says they have to be concurrent and compatible, but you know how clever and convincing legal scholars can be. Especially when they are saying what you want to hear.
Frankly, I think the whole debate is much ado about nothing. The constitution requires that 2/3 of the states ask for a convention. Very simply, you can’t have a convention without the participation of at least 34 states. Period.
So very literally, the constitution requires a minimum of 34 states to be represented at the convention. If there are only 33states, there is no quorum. And without a quorum, the convention cannot propose an amendment to the constitution. The only thing a convention can do without a quorum is try to get a quorum.
So here is the resolution that the pro-convention advocates should agree upon:
In the Legislature of the State of ___________, the Senate and the House concurring, BE IT RESOLVED that the Congress of the United States is requested to call a Convention for Proposing Amendments to the Constitution as provided in Article V thereof, the same to be convened in the City of Philadelphia on the second Monday in May, 2013 upon the attendance of a quorum of representatives of at least 34 of the several States.
There can be no “run away” convention. Any time less than 34 states are represented, there is no quorum, and nothing will happen. States that don’t agree with the agenda can simply call their delegates home.
And they don’t even have to hole up in a motel in Illinois.