There's a right way and a wrong way to amend the United States Constitution, and far too many current state legislators are trying to do it the wrong way: by attempting to call our first constitutional convention since 1787.
Amending the Constitution is a great privilege enjoyed by Americans. Many framers thought it the most important provision of the Constitution, since they believed the document they produced was bound to be flawed and would need amendments.
They provided two methods for correcting their mistakes. By two-thirds vote in each house, Congress can propose specific changes, which take effect when ratified by three-fourths of the states. That's how we have approved all 27 of our amendments: ending slavery, extending the vote to women, guaranteeing "equal protection of the laws" and expanding personal liberties.
Alternatively, two-thirds of the states (34 of our current 50) can call "a convention for proposing amendments," also known as an Article V Convention.
Recklessly, current advocates for a "balanced budget" amendment and for one to limit campaign spending — advocates from opposing ends of the political spectrum — are embracing the convention mechanism for amendment.
A proposal in the Maryland General Assembly would make Maryland the fifth state to call for a convention to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United opinion, which limited Congress' power to regulate political spending. At the same time, 25 states have adopted resolutions calling for a convention to address the balanced-budget proposal.
The appeal of the convention process is that it allows the advocates to evade Congress, which has no role but to call the convention. Yet few seem to understand that a second convention would be the ultimate loose cannon, able to rewrite almost every provision of the Constitution. For that reason, James Madison fought fiercely in the early years of the republic to prevent the calling of a second constitutional convention.
Such a convocation, he warned, would attract people "who will essentially mutilate the system," resulting in a "dangerous opportunity of sapping the very foundations of the fabric" of the Constitution.
The Constitution is silent about the procedures, scope and nature of a second constitutional convention. It doesn't prescribe how states would choose delegates, nor how the convention would proceed, nor what its agenda can be (except that equal Senate representation for every state cannot be changed). Based on the precedent of our first Constitutional Convention, Congress cannot decide those questions.
Rather, each state would choose delegates by whatever method it thought best. The state delegates would be free to choose their procedures and decide what changes they wished to make. In 1787, some states tried to limit the subjects their delegates could address at the convention. The delegates ignored their states' instructions.
In short, a second convention would create extraordinary confusion. The delegates could do almost anything they wished. The sole check on the process would be that the final product must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
For those urging a single constitutional amendment — say, the balanced budget amendment or the campaign-funding proposal — this process seems profoundly unwise. In pursuit of a single policy, they propose to throw the structure of the entire government into doubt.
A second convention should be a last resort, used when the government has failed so utterly that we should start over with a blank piece of paper. In 1787, many convention delegates thought the situation was that dire, that the United States soon would fracture into multiple smaller nations. Our current government, despite many dysfunctions, is hardly at such a desperate stage.
When Madison wanted significant changes in the Constitution, he wrote amendments and fought for them. The result was the Bill of Rights. Current advocates of constitutional change should emulate Madison's approach.
David O. Stewart, a lawyer in Montgomery County, is the author of "The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution," and "Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.