Based on what you remember from civics class, or perhaps just from the story line of the film "Lincoln," you probably think you know how the U.S. Constitution can be amended: Both houses of Congress, by a two-thirds majority vote, approve an amendment, which then must be ratified by three-fifths of the states.
That's right, as far as it goes. It is, in fact, the only way the Constitution has ever been amended.
But there is another way, and a state lawmaker believes California may be poised to start a movement that could lead to the first-ever invocation of the little-noticed second method provided for in Article V -- a mandate that Congress "shall call a convention" to amend the Constitution "on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states."
The spark for the unprecedented prairie fire that Assemblyman Mike Gatto envisions is the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which held that corporations enjoy the same free speech rights as individuals and, therefore, government cannot set limits on the amount they may independently spend to influence American democracy.
Gatto's proposal, Assembly Joint Resolution 1, would demand that Congress call a convention to propose an amendment "that limits corporate personhood for purposes of campaign finance and political speech and further declares that money does not constitute speech and may be legislatively limited."
I wrote about Gatto's introduction of this proposal at the end of 2012. Since then, he's been letting it cook. Now the moment of decision nears: It passed the Assembly earlier this year, and last week won approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Gatto, D-Los Angeles, told me he hopes to get full Senate approval before lawmakers begin their summer recess next month.
Over the last 18 months, Gatto said he has been fielding inquiries from other states. Last month, Vermont became the first state to call for such a convention. California is poised to become No. 2. At that point, it would take 32 more.
Although, to date, AJR 1 has received support from only Democrats in the California Legislature, Gatto told me he has heard from a number of Republican-dominated states expressing interest. Among them is Montana, where voters have already overwhelmingly approved an advisory measure calling for an amendment to effectively overturn Citizens United.
Widespread outrage over the Citizens United case began from the moment the 5-4 decision was released. And with another round of congressional campaigns upon us, the outrage continues to build.
At the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., today, researchers from Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law are scheduled to release a report on post-Citizens United independent political expenditures that will include the viewpoints of the insiders who perhaps know best the effects of the decision -- former members of Congress, from both parties.
Those insiders' viewpoints are expected to debunk the Supreme Court's preposterous assertion in its Citizens United decision which held that unlimited independent expenditures, since they are not directly associated with a candidate, do not constitute even the appearance of corruption.
In the report, former North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad asserts the notion that these expenditures are truly independent "is just nonsense."
Current members of Congress, of course, are less likely to be critical of the very system that helped put and keep them in office.
That's why Gatto believes it will take ground-up pressure from the states to force a constitutional amendment.
"I would submit that's exactly what the Founders had in mind -- to allow the states to initiate an amendment that is not in the members of Congress' self-interest," he said.
He notes that at the original Constitutional Convention, Virginia delegate George Mason insisted that the states have the ability to initiate an amendment. "This takes advantage of that option," Gatto says.
Although no constitutional convention has ever been called, Gatto believes the threat of states demanding one has been the motivation behind two of the 23 amendments that have been added to the Constitution since it was first ratified. Those are the 17th Amendment, which established direct election of U.S. senators, and the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition.
"As soon as critical mass has occurred, Congress has always acted," he said. "When it comes to within one or two states calling for a convention, Congress has passed amendments."
What is the chance of California soon becoming the nucleus around which such critical mass of state sentiment could gather?
"Shockingly," Gatto says, "it looks pretty good."