Amending the Federal Constitution from the Trenton State House

John Reitmeyer | January 27, 2017 | Politics
A grassroots movement hopes to use Article 5 to convene a convention called by state legislatures across the country

It’s been 25 years since the U.S. Constitution was last amended, but a national grassroots effort that’s being supported by thousands of New Jersey residents is hoping to make it happen again — and soon.

Citing concerns about the power of the federal government and the need for more fiscal restraint, the Convention of States project is working to use a little-known Constitutional mechanism involving state legislatures to create a batch of new amendments.

The push to amend the Constitution is being led nationally by Mark Meckler, a former Tea Party activist, and it has wide appeal among Republicans across the country. But the effort could also start to draw interest from Democrats looking for new ways to rein in the power of President Donald Trump’s new administration, especially after what’s been a turbulent first week in office.

Article Five allows state legislatures to “call a Convention for proposing Amendments” if the legislatures in at least two-thirds of the states give their approval, which right now would be 34 states. Once the convention is held and the amendments are proposed and drafted, the Constitution requires three-fourths of the legislatures, or those in at least 38 states, to ratify the amendments.

So far, resolutions calling for the convention have been passed by eight states; Dan Gilligan, the Convention of States’ director in New Jersey, is hoping that the Garden State will soon be added to that list. A Convention of States resolution has already been introduced in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly, and 12,000 New Jerseyans have signed a petition backing the effort.

“We’re expecting and working to get this done in New Jersey in 2017,” said Gilligan, a resident of Holland Township in Hunterdon County.

Allowing state legislatures to advance constitutional amendments was intended by the nation’s founders as another of the many checks and balances that the U.S. government is known for, Gilligan said. And even though the process has never been successfully used to draft an amendment, he thinks the founders expected it to be used fairly regularly. It seems unlikely that those in the federal government would want less power, so Article Five provides a way to establish limits via the states if necessary, he said.

“I look at it as a rather elegant and legitimate method by which regular citizens can act through their state legislatures and have a significant effect at the federal level,” said Gilligan, a small-business owner who is volunteering his time to lead the convention effort in New Jersey.

“We’re just kind of following the recipe that’s in the Constitution,” he said.

The last time an amendment to the Constitution was ratified was in 1992, when the 27th amendment was formally approved, officially preventing Congress from adopting pay increases for its members that take effect immediately.

There have been other organized attempts to amend the Constitution that have been launched in recent years, including efforts to ensure equal rights for women and to require the federal government to maintain a balanced budget. But those efforts have yet to prove successful.

The Convention of States project is taking a different approach. Its proposed resolution does not call for specific remedies, but instead proposes that delegates come together to discuss three issues.

To address concerns about federal spending and deficits, the resolution calls for a discussion of fiscal restraints; to prevent general overreach by the federal government, it calls for a discussion of ways to limit federal power and jurisdiction; and to tighten the reins on Congress, it proposes a discussion of term limits.

After holding those discussions, the delegates would then put forward more detailed amendments for ratification.

“It’s more of a democratic approach,” Gilligan said.

And while some in New Jersey in recent years have called for a constitutional convention to address the state’s high property tax bills, others have raised concerns that such a convention could lead to an overhauling of the state constitution itself, which has been in place since 1947. By contrast, the convention that’s authorized under Article Five would be organized to discuss only amendments to the original document, not a wholesale rewriting of it.

In the New Jersey Legislature, the Convention of the States resolution is being sponsored by some of the most conservative members, including Sens. Mike Doherty (R-Warren), Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris), and Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris). But the overall effort is nonpartisan, and Gilligan acknowledged that it could now start to draw support from Democrats who are concerned about federal overreach under Trump, whose first week in office has included the drafting of ambitious and possibly illegal executive orders, impacting healthcare, immigration, and infrastructure.

“I just think it’s very powerful for us in a democracy for all of the citizens to understand that we can do this,” Gilligan said.