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Do We Need a New Constitutional Convention

Do We Need a New Constitutional Convention

Article V of the Constitution provides two methods for adding Amendments. Congress introduces amendments by one method; the states initiate them under the other.

The only method ever used is the congressional method. It lets Congress pass constitutional amendments by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Such amendments must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or special state conventions, as Congress determines. Over 10,000 amendments have been introduced into Congress since 1789. Only 33 have been approved. Of these, 27 have been ratified and added to the Constitution.

The other way of amending the Constitution has never been successfully used. Under this procedure, the states initiate the amending process by petitioning Congress for a constitutional convention. When two-thirds of the states have submitted petitions, Congress must call a convention. Any amendments approved by such a convention must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Congress decides whether state legislatures or state conventions will ratify these amendments.

Since the Constitution went into effect, there have been about 400 petitions from state legislatures calling for a convention to consider one thing or another. None of these efforts ever succeeded, but some came close. For years Congress ignored requests to pass an amendment allowing for the direct election of U.S. senators. Finally, in 1912, Congress passed the 17th Amendment, but only after supporters of the amendment were just one state short of triggering a constitutional convention.

Since the 1960s, state legislatures have submitted petitions for constitutional conventions when Congress refused to pass controversial amendments. Three of these amendments would have allowed prayers in the schools, prohibited busing for racial balance, and permitted the states to make abortions illegal. In each of these cases, however, supporters fell short of getting the 34 states needed for calling a constitutional convention.

Most recently, there has been a major movement to pass a federal balanced budget amendment. Unable to get action in Congress, supporters again turned to the convention method of amendment. To date, those behind the balanced budget amendment have convinced 32 states to submit convention petitions to Congress. Backers of the amendment need only two more states to compel Congress to call a convention.

Many people have voiced concern over the convention method of amending the Constitution. Our only experience with a national constitutional convention took place 200 years ago. At that time the delegates took it upon themselves to ignore the reason for calling the convention, which was merely to improve the Articles of Confederation. The Founding Fathers also violated the procedure for changing the Articles of Confederation. Instead of requiring approval of all the state legislatures, the signers of the Constitution called for ratification by elected state conventions in only nine of the 13 states.

Another point of anxiety is that Article V of the Constitution says nothing about what a convention may or may not do. If a convention is held, must it deal with only one proposed amendment? Or could the delegates vote on any number of amendments that were introduced? The Constitution itself provides no answers to these questions.

Howard Jarvis, the late leader of the conservative tax revolt in California during the 1970s, opposed a convention. He stated that a convention "would put the Constitution back on the drawing board, where every radical crackpot or special interest group would have the chance to write the supreme law of the land."

Others, like Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, disagree with this viewpoint. Senator Hatch has said it is ironic when the people attempt to engage in "participatory democracy set forth by the Constitution, we are subject to doomsday rhetoric and dire predictions of domestic and international disaster."

Of course, any amendments produced by a convention would still have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. We may soon see how this never-used method works if the balanced budget people swing two more states over to their side.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Which amendment method do you think is the best? Why?
  2. What are some potential dangers in calling a new constitutional convention?
  3. Should the delegates of a future convention called to consider a certain amendment have the right to propose other constitutional amendments? Why or why not?
  4. Do we need a new constitutional convention? Why or why not? If so, what amendments should be considered by it?


The "Safe America" Amendment

It is sometime in the near future, and several incidents of terrorism have rocked America. The most recent took place at National Airport in Washington, D.C. Six young men suddenly opened fire with automatic weapons at crowds of summer vacationers in front of the airline check-in counters. Within seconds the terminal was filled with bodies. Twelve people were killed, including a 6-month-old infant. Thirty others were wounded.

Two days later one of the terrorists called a Washington, D.C., talk-radio program. He identified himself as belonging to the "Blood for Blood Movement." He said, "America is the source of evil in the world. Americans must pay with their own blood." The radio interview went on for 45 minutes. The next day many newspapers published parts, or in some cases, all of the interview.

Terrorist acts like the one at National Airport have taken place in restaurants, churches, ball parks, movie theaters, and even at an elementary school. The strategy of the terrorist groups seems to be to attack ordinary innocent Americans. A wide variety of terrorist organizations have openly used the press and broadcast media to take credit for many bombings and murders. Perhaps most frightening of all, an individual carrying parts of a miniaturized nuclear explosive device was recently intercepted while trying to enter the country.

Many efforts have been made to tighten security against terrorism in the United States. While the actual death toll and the chance of being injured in an attack remains small, Americans have become increasingly frightened. Opinion polls call for tougher action. Critics claim that media coverage has blown the situation out of proportion. Others are not so sure.

An organization called "People for a Safe America" has attempted to get Congress to pass the following amendment to the Constitution:

"Safe America" Amendment

Section 1
The citizens of the United States shall enjoy the right of safety from terrorist attack.

Section 2
To enforce this article, Congress shall have the power to establish special military courts solely for the prosecution of persons accused of terrorist acts. Such courts shall not be required to observe the provisions contained in Amendments IV, V, VI and VIII of this Constitution.

Section 3
To further enforce this article, Congress shall have the power to ban the manufacture, sale, and possession of all handguns and concealable weapons within the territorial boundaries of the United States.

Section 4
To further enforce this article, Congress shall have the power to pass legislation prohibiting the publication or broadcast of interviews with terrorists or propaganda materials supplied by them.

* * * * * *

More than 50 percent of the members in each house of Congress voted for the amendment. Still the votes fell short of the two-thirds majority required by Article V of the Constitution.

A new movement then attempted to get state legislatures to petition Congress for a constitutional convention to consider the "Safe America" Amendment. This effort succeeded. The first constitutional convention in more than 200 years is about to begin.

In this activity, class members will play the role of delegates at a constitutional convention called by Congress to consider the "Safe America" Amendment. Below are the rules and agenda adopted by the convention.


  1. By a simple majority vote, the delegates will choose one person to be president of the convention. The president will conduct all proceedings according to the agenda and will make all necessary rulings. The president will not vote on any matter.
  2. Each delegate will serve on a debate committee for or against the proposed amendment. Each committee will consist of at least three persons and convene for at least 15 minutes to consider its arguments. Each member of the committee is responsible for contributing at least one argument.
  3. After a motion, second, and discussion, the delegates may, by a simple majority vote, change the wording of the proposed amendment.
  4. The final vote on the proposed constitutional amendment will require a two-thirds vote of all delegates present.


  1. The president of the convention will read the proposed amendment.
  2. The president will recognize debate committees in favor of the proposed amendment to present arguments.
  3. Delegates may question or rebut the debate committees.
  4. The president will recognize debate committees opposed to the proposed amendment to present arguments.
  5. Delegates may question or rebut the debate committees.
  6. The president will call on two debate committees to present closing arguments for and against the amendment.
  7. Delegates may introduce changes in the wording of the proposed amendment.
  8. The president will call for a final vote on the proposed amendment.

Debriefing Questions

  1. If ratified, what effect would the "Safe America" Amendment have on the rights of individuals in America?
  2. What was the quality of the argument raised for or against the amendment? What were the most important arguments? What important arguments were missed?
  3. Based on your experience, do you think a constitutional convention is a good way to amend the Constitution?