The Maine State Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs (VLA) is split on a resolution calling for a national convention under Article V to consider proposing amendments to impose term limits on members of Congress and address issues related to campaign finance.
SP 705 — Joint Resolution Making Separate Applications to the Congress of the United States Calling Constitutional Conventions to Consider Representational Integrity and Propose Amendments Establishing Term Limits for Congress and Addressing Campaign Fiance Reform — was introduced during the state’s first legislative session and carried over into this year.
The public hearing for SP 705 was held on May 24, 2023, and the VLA Committee voted on the resolution on January 12, 2024 before reporting out on Friday, January 26.
Eight lawmakers voted in support of the resolution, including: Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec), Rep. Laura D. Supica (D-Bangor), Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris), Rep. David W. Boyer (R-Poland), Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland), Rep. Shelley Rudnicki (R-Fairfield), Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin), and Rep. Lynne A. Williams (D-Bar Harbor).
Five legislators voted in opposition to the measure, including: Rep. Benjamin T. Collings (D-Portland), Rep. Benjamin C. Hymes (R-Waldo), Rep. Marc G. Malon II (D-Biddeford), Rep. Karen L. Montell (D-Gardiner), and Rep. Morgan J. Rielly (D-Westbrook).
Under Article V of the United States Constitution — upon request from the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the states — a convention must be called for the purpose of proposing amendments to the constitution, and Sp 705 would serve as an application for a convention under this framework.
In order for a convention to be called, thirty-four state legislatures must pass applications requesting that one be convened.
Although SP 705 proposes two specific amendments for consideration, there is some disagreement over whether or not a convention called as a result of Maine’s application could effectively be constrained to a pre-approved agenda.
Supporters of this resolution emphasize the targeted nature of the proposed amendments, arguing the merits of amending the Constitution to include Congressional term limits and campaign finance reforms.
Opponents, on the other hand, raised concerns about the potentiality of destabilizing the country by opening the door for sweeping constitutional changes.
Among constitutional scholarship, there is some disagreement as to if and how an Article V convention could be restrained in its purpose, as the Constitution is largely silent on the specifics of what such an occurrence would look like in practice.
Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) — one of the sponsors of SP 705 — spoke primarily to the wide support for the specific amendments called for by the resolution in his testimony before the VLA Committee.
“Our politics is broken. Our government is corrupted by money. Our nation as we know it is imperiled,” Sen. Bennett said. “Washington is broken. Profound changes are needed.”
“This Joint Resolution asks Congress to call two separate Article V conventions: one to propose a Constitutional Amendment on congressional term limits and another to propose a Constitutional Amendment to allow for real reform to our campaign finance laws,” Bennett said. “I believe these steps are critical to repair our structural dysfunction that threatens the very existence of our republic.”
Bennett also suggested that pursuing an Article V convention is a means by which to affect meaningful constitutional change when Congress is unwilling to do so itself.
“An Article V convention is an option the Framers gave the state legislatures to check the power of an unresponsive Congress, which is sadly the case today,” Bennett said.
“An Article V application is not a request for Congress to do something; it is a statement that the state legislatures plan to force critical change with or without Congress’ consent once they have two-thirds in agreement on the subject matter,” Bennett testified. “Of course, any proposals will require three-fourth of the states — 38 of 50 — to be ultimately ratified.”
Bennett also noted in his testimony that the process of states approving applications for an Article V convention have a history of pressuring Congress into taking action.
“Many of the measures that have become ratified amendments to our Constitution were first proposed as Article V measures by the states and gathered sufficient support that the Congress finally stepped in and made proposed amendments, obviating the need for these conventions,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s also sought to provide clarity on what kind of convention this legislation seeks to propose, suggesting that the title given to SP 705 is “incorrect” and “created much confusion.”
“Neither of these two applications conjoined in this one joint resolution seeks a Constitutional Convention with authority to propose a new Constitution,” Bennett testified. “Rather, they are applications for a convention with only authority to propose the amendments as stated in the two applications to our current Constitution, which aligns with the wording of Article V.”
Rep. Randall Greenwood (R-Wales) — a co-sponsor of SP 705 — also suggested in his testimony that pursuing an Article V convention for the purpose of discussing term limits and campaign finance reform has the potential to push Congress into action — and if not, it would allow the states to make decisions on these issues themselves.
“As we have seen in the past, when enough pressure is placed on Congress by the state legislatures applying for a convention, Congress will act,” Rep. Greenwood testified. “If Congress refuses to act, then we will take up the reform ourselves and will decide how many terms the members of the U.S. House and Senate can serve.”
“The framers knew that the Constitution would need to be amended over time, and they needed a way to be able to amend the Constitution without consent of the Congress in case Congress was the problem,” Greenwood said. “Today, we find ourselves in this very predicament.”
Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Hancock) echoed similar sentiments in her testimony.
“Maine has used this tool four times in the past. Most notably, Maine was pivotal in forcing Congress to propose the 17th Amendment for the Direction Election of senators,” Sen. Grohoski said. “The year following Maine’s submission, Congress read the writing on the wall and proposed the amendment instead.”
Two law school professors also offered testimony on SP 705 — one in favor of the measure and one in opposition to it.
Prof. Super argued in his testimony that Article V “makes no provision for a limited convention, gives no body the power to limit the agenda of a convention, and empowers nobody to enforce any such limits if they were to exist.”
“Claims that an Article V convention would be limited to a single purpose cannot begin to be credible unless proponents can identify a source of law that so limits a convention and a body that would be willing and able to enforce such limits,” Super said. “They can do neither.”
Prof. Lessig, on the other hand, argues in his testimony that these concerns are not “substantial.”
“Advocates who seek to drive the convention to consider matters not supported by 34 states will find their efforts immediately ruled improper,” Lessig said. “And any convention that ignores its clear limiting rules risks being declared ultra vires.”
According to Lessig, rules adopted by the Assembly of State Legislatures would limit any Article V convention “to proposing only an amendment or amendments to the Constitution of the United States whose subject(s) were specifically included in the resolutions of at least two-thirds of the several States.”
Super also raises concerns about relying too heavily upon the ratification process to safeguard against potential overreaches by the convention, suggesting that it may “set its own, much easier, ratification procedures in lieu of those in Article V.”
Lessig responds to these concerns by suggesting that a convention simply would not have the power to “change the rules for an amendment’s adoption,” explaining that the 1787 convention does not serve as an appropriate reference for what a twenty-first constitutional convention could potentially look like.
Lengthy written testimony submitted by the non-profit organization U.S. Term Limits argues not only the merits of a potential amendment imposing term limits on members of Congress — as well as campaign finance reform — but also offers its own perspective on the debate concerning the power of an Article V convention.
In addition to citing a number of founding documents that support their position that an Article V convention would be limited in scope, U.S. Term Limits also points toward several pieces of historical evidence that support their interpretation of Article V.
According to a report published in 2016 by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the legitimacy and primacy of the limited convention model remains unsettled, and questions remain as to what an Article V convention would or would not be permitted, in practice, to do.
The ultimate fate of SP 705 — as well as of the broader, nationwide movement to call for an Article V convention — remains unknown at this time.
Note: This article has been updated to provide additional clarity concerning conventions called under Article V.