A new constitutional convention?

A new constitutional convention?
(W.L. Ormsby/Library of Congress via AP)

Is the federal government running amuck? Is it trampling the rights of both states and individuals? Are we sinking into some sort of socialist nightmare or capitalist plutocracy? (Depending who you ask.) People have obviously been raising some of these concerns for a while and some of them are returning to an old proposal to address them. At least according to Reid Wilson at The Hill, we are currently seeing a resurgence of people calling for an Article V Constitutional Convention. It’s something that has been attempted many times, including in the modern era, but the country never seems to manage to attract the support of the 34 states that would be required to make it happen. The most recent effort appears to be driven largely by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and their conservative goals for such a convention aren’t likely to sit well the progressive leaders of most blue states.

Conservative lawmakers will mount a new push to call a constitutional convention aimed at creating a balanced budget amendment and establishing term limits for members of Congress in an effort to rein in what they see as a runaway federal government.

State legislators meeting at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s policy conference here last week hope to use Article V of the Constitution, which allows state legislatures to call a convention to propose new amendments.

“It’s really the last line of defense that we have. Right now, the federal government’s run away. They’re not going to pull their own power back. They’re not going to restrict themselves. And so this Article V convention is really, in my opinion, is the last option that we have,” said Iowa state Rep. John Wills (R), the state’s House Speaker pro tempore who backs the convention.

I really do have to wonder if the folks at ALEC have really thought this matter through. (Be careful what you wish for.) Their two primary goals aren’t anything I find particularly offensive. I would definitely support a balanced budget amendment, though the thought of it drives the Democrats insane. As far as term limits go, I suppose I’m not really opposed if that’s what a majority of the people want. But I also think we already have a form of term limits via regular elections where officials have to once again earn the trust and supports of their constituents.

My much larger concerns, several of which are addressed in the linked article, have more to do with the unknown nature of what the products of such a convention might be. The Constitution is quite vague in describing how the process would work and Congress would be left to hammer out the details as they go. You couldn’t limit the scope of the convention to just two amendments as is being described. Any sufficiently robust group of states could put anything they wanted on the table.

What if you helped organize an Article V Convention for the purpose of passing a balanced budget amendment and somebody else teamed up to repeal the Second Amendment? What if they introduced a constitutional right to an abortion? Another group might lobby for an amendment assuring every citizen the right to select any of 37 genders that they prefer. Speaking of citizens, what if the convention produced a rule preventing the blocking of anyone trying to come into the country and assured them the immediate right to vote upon their arrival, doing away with the concept of citizenship?

Even if you’re not concerned with a convention that turns into a circus train running off the rails, the whole thing might wind up being a waste of time anyway. According to Article V, any amendment that comes from a convention would still have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. That’s a pretty steep hill to climb. Imagine putting in all of the work required to muster a convention and get your favorite issue pushed through as an amendment only to then watch it languish for years without the required number of states ratifying it. (How long has the Equal Rights Amendment been banging around the closet? And that one, while not particularly needed or useful in the current era, really wasn’t even all that controversial.)

As I already said. This seems like a matter of being careful what you wish for. If you’re really worried about the federal government being too powerful – and I definitely am – it seems like the more practical and achievable solution would be to work harder toward recruiting good, small-government candidates and reform the system from within. And that means winning the battle for hearts and minds and turning more purple or even blue states red. (Unless you happen to be a Democrat reading this, in which case you would be working for the opposite.)

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David Strom 8:41 PM on March 20, 2023