Ralph Benko | Dec 17, 2013
On December 7th, nearly 100 state legislators, many distinguished, representing 32 states, assembled at Mount Vernon.
They gathered at the homestead of George Washington, 15 miles from the
capital city named for him. The purpose? To discuss how, safely, to
revive an overlooked, but invaluable, provision in the United States
Constitution to allow a supermajority of states to rein in a power-drunk
According to a press release issued after the Assembly’s adjournment,
“They emphasized the importance of any convention being done in a way
that accomplishes the will of the people while protecting the sanctity
of the Constitution, as this action could ultimately lead to proposed
amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as authorized under Article V. The
subject matter of what those amendments would be was not discussed.”
In other words, first things first. First priority is to establish how
this amendment process safely can be conducted. Only when prudent
ground rules are established will it be timely to consider substantive
The venue, Mount Vernon, was as apt as iconic. George Washington, the
father of our country, of course served as our first president. Of
perhaps equal importance Washington also presided over the original
Constitutional Convention. Now, lawmakers from a majority of states
assembled at his estate to address the issue of how, safely, to bring
Washington (DC) back into alignment with, well, the vision of (George)
The Mount Vernon Assembly is a noble exercise in federalism.
Not for nothing is our fair nation named the United States of America.
Is the federal government out of control? You, Dear Reader, must decide. As this columnist wrote at
The federal government spent $15 billion from 1789 – 1900. Not $15 billion a year. $15 billion cumulatively.
Uncle Sam will spend $10 billion a day in 2011. The federal government
spends more every two days than it did altogether for more than
America’s first century. Although these sums are not adjusted for
inflation [or population growth] they give a correct impression of the
magnitude of the change from what our Founders set forth and our early
Thoughtful Republicans and Democrats, Progressives and Conservatives,
as well as Tea Partiers and Independents … find this profligacy
sobering, perhaps sickening. Even after adjustment for inflation and
population, it is impossible to argue that the federal government has
not ballooned by orders of magnitude beyond that contemplated by the
What is to be done?
Enter the Mount Vernon Assembly.
Some, especially on the left, are attempting to blame federal government dysfunction on the Constitution. An Annals of Law feature in the current New Yorker, by Jeffrey Toobin, is entitled Our Broken Constitution.
Wrong. It is the federal government, not the Constitution, that is
broken. The federal government has gone out of alignment with its
nature as envisioned in the Constitution.
And in the Constitution itself resides the solution.
Many Americans feel thwarted by their federal government. Many
humanitarian populists, both of left and right — including this
columnist — see the federal government as out of touch with the “consent
of the governed.” It is this consent that the Declaration of
Independence cites as the source of government legitimacy. The most
poignant sign of this is the record low 9% popular approval rating of the United States Congress.
The Constitution contains within itself a mechanism designed to rectify
this very problem. There is a little known, but powerful, “emergency
cord” built into Article V. This allows a supermajority of States – 34
to call a convention to propose amendments, 38 to ratify proposed
amendments — to trump an obstructionist federal government and amend the
Constitution. The Constitution states:
on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several
states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which … shall
be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when
ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or
by conventions in three fourths thereof….
This provision was inserted at the insistence of liberty-minded
Virginia delegate George Mason. The background of its insertion is set
forth in a recent article in The American Spectator
by one of the most prominent advocates of the Article V state-led
amendment process, Mark Meckler. Meckler, as co-founder of the Tea
Party Patriots, the largest and most authentic of the national Tea Party
groups, is a man to be reckoned with:
According to the Convention records, Mason thought that, if left up to
Congress itself, “no amendments of the proper kind would ever be
obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive, as
he verily believed would be the case.” In response, Gouverneur Morris
and Elbridge Gerry made a motion to amend Article V to introduce
language requiring that requiring that a convention be called when
two-thirds of the state legislatures petitioned Congress.
This authority of the states to amend the constitution was praised by none less than James Madison in The Federalist No. 43: “It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments
to originate the [Constitutional] amendment of errors, as they may be
pointed out by the experience on one side, or on the other.” (Emphasis
State-initiated amendments under Article V have been been obstructed,
in our current era, by two principal opponents. The noble Phyllis
Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum, is inexorably opposed to the use of
the state-driven amendment process. Also opposed is the John Birch
Society. Mrs. Schlafly’s (and the JBS’s) oft-reiterated fear is of a
runaway convention that could strip — rather than add to — protections
of our civil liberties and add power to — rather than subtract power
from — the central government.
Many conservatives of impeccable credentials respectfully consider Mrs.
Schlafly’s concerns overblown.
And a popular movement has been
developing for yanking the Article V “emergency cord” on the runaway
federal locomotive. Mike Farris, founder and head of the Home School
Legal Defense Fund (and its national network of populist activists),
also founder and Chancellor of Patrick Henry College, recently
referenced his reverence for, and long working relationship with, Mrs.
Schlafly. It is Farris’s judgment that she has earned the right to be
wrong, once, in an otherwise impeccable career of citizen service that
spans over half a century. Many other conservatives, including this
columnist, concur with Farris’s view.
Nevertheless most conservatives accord Mrs. Schlafly’s opinions great
respect. Thought leaders thus have been seeking an authoritative way to
address Mrs. Schlafly’s fears by devising a bulletproof guarantee of
federalist legitimacy for such a process … and against any possibility
of a runaway convention.
Prominent among these thought leaders are Farris and Mark Meckler, founders of the increasingly influential Convention Of States, a division of Citizens for Self Governance.
Their efforts are amplified by a bright and capable team of young
constitutional tigers and by volunteer state leaders in dozens of
Other important thought leaders engaged include the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Goldwater Institute’s Nick Dranias, Prof.Robert Nadelson of the Independence Institute, and Roman Buhler, proponent of the Madison Amendment. Two months ago, Marc Levin published a best-selling book, The Liberty Amendments, further validating
the Article V process and drawing the important support of influential
figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and, most recently, Glenn Beck.
The process begins to move from theory to practice. Last May, Indiana
Senator, and Senate president, David Long shepherded two pieces of
legislation of highest integrity into law, presented, and explained, here. These represent inviolable guardrails and guidelines to ensure no
runaway convention and to ensure the prudence and legitimacy of the
process. Long’s breakthrough recently was the subject of an admiringcolumn
by the iconic Cal Thomas concluding that “Sen. David Long may have
discovered the only path left for attaining fiscal solvency.”
Passage of Sen. Long’s legislation, and signature by Indiana Gov. Mike
Pence, was a breakthrough. It may prove a breakthrough of historic
proportions. The Mount Vernon Assembly — assembling Democrats as well
as Republicans — was another breakthrough.
Wisconsin state Representative Chris Kapenga conceived and chaired this
assembly. In an exclusive interview with this columnist, Kapenga said:
About a year ago, I visited Mount Vernon for the first time. I sat on
the same porch where George Washington sat with companions such as James
Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. It inspired me and
made me think about how we are dealing with issues now similar to those
they were dealing with then: issues of balance. Then, America had to
strengthen its federal government. Now, the federal government’s power
has grown excessive. The states need to step up and re-balance matters.
Federalism at its finest.
In a recent Human Events column, under the vitriolic headline ARTICLE V CONVENTION A RECIPE FOR CHAOS,
Mrs. Schlafly wrote: “Alas, I don’t see any George Washingtons, James
Madisons, Ben Franklins or Alexander Hamiltons around today who could do
as good a job as the Founding Fathers, and I’m worried about the men
who think they can.”
This comment underestimates (and insults) the intellect and civic
spirit of the state legislators who led, and participated in, the Mount
Vernon Assembly. This columnist is second to none in his admiration
for those who wrote and ratified the Constitution. But greatness did
not die with them. And as Harry Truman once observed, “A statesman is a
politician who has been dead ten or fifteen years.” (Or longer.)
The great jurist Learned Hand, in 1944, gave a brief, immortal speech, The Spirit of Liberty, before a million and a half people in Central Park, New York, on “I Am an American Day.” Hand observed:
I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon
constitutions, upon laws and upon courts.
These are false hopes; believe
me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women;
when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much
to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no
court to save it.
Judge Hand is a figure esteemed as much by the left as by the right. Saul Alinsky cites Hand in Rules for Radicals.
An Article V amendment process is a function of citizen dignity —
‘power to the people.” It leans neither left nor right. It is
federalism at its finest. It has, and will have, humanitarian populist
proponents (and, also, not-always-so-populist opponents) on the left as
well as the right.
Now cometh almost a hundred citizen-legislators, hearts filled with
love of country and of liberty. These are the very hearts upon which
Judge Hand advised us to rely. These are hearts intent on restoring
liberty to America, intent on setting up inviolable guardrails and
guarantees to permit us safe access to the Constitution’s “emergency
cord” — contained in Article V — to stop the runaway federal locomotive.
This columnist confidently predicts that Sen. Long’s breakthrough
legislation, or legislation directly inspired by it, will ramify widely
throughout the several states during the 2014 and 2015 legislative
sessions. Then, by 2016, the matter of which amendment or amendments
should be considered will be in order. It is premature to consider
these now. Perhaps forthcoming will be amendments constraining
Washington’s onerous taxing, profligate spending, and unjustifiable
printing-press-money (a pernicious thing debated in and withheld from
the federal government by the Constitutional Convention) powers.
If so the big political news of 2016 will not be about the presidential
race. It will be about how nearly 100 citizen-legislators began a
process that restored liberty to America. The big story is bigger than
The big story is constitutional. It is a story about how
liberty-minded Americans such as Sen. David Long, of Indiana, Rep. Chris
Kopenga, of Wisconsin, Rep. Matt Huffman, of Ohio, Rep. Gary Banz, of
Oklahoma, Sen. Caryn Tyson, of Kansas, Rep. Yvette Herrell and Sen.
Kevin Lundberg, of Colorado (co-chairs of a coordinate Article V Caucus), and other state legislators such as Del. Jim LeMunyon, of Virginia, began the process of restoring liberty to our sweet land.