Constitutional Roulette

The far right efforts to re-write the U.S. Constitution moved closer to happening this week. The Wisconsin Assembly passed several resolutions calling for a national constitutional convention. This highly risky proposal is unnecessary. It is a dangerous gamble with our democracy and current political system. And it is a con job designed to achieve an objective very different than claimed by its supporters.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows a convention for proposing amendments if two-thirds of the states (34) call for one. Amendments and other changes must be approved by three-quarters (38) of the state legislatures. If passed by the state Senate, Wisconsin would be the 30th state to approve this initiative. Republicans currently control 32 state legislatures. Six states have divided legislatures. The far right is dangerously close to being able to write their destructive agenda into the Constitution.

Why is this a bad idea? What is wrong with proposing amendments? The Constitution has been amended 27 times. All of them were proposed and passed using the other Article V procedure. Under this process Congress approves a SPECIFIC AMENDMENT and then three quarters of the state legislatures must approve. A constitutional convention, once convened, can do whatever it wants. We don’t know in advance what changes may be proposed.

The supporters of the convention claim it is for the sole purpose of proposing a balanced budget amendment. The Wisconsin Assembly passed a resolution stating that this is the only issue that can be considered. But many constitutional experts, including former Supreme Court justices, believe that once established there is nothing to prevent a convention from considering any issues they choose. It is hard to believe that the radical Republicans pushing this process don’t understand this fact.

A convention would be a stealth tactic to re-write the Constitution. Potentially everyone’s constitutional rights and civil liberties could be up for grabs. As recent gerrymandering, limitations on voting rights, and proposals to criminalize dissent indicate, Republicans are no champions of freedom or civil liberties. Historically they have opposed civil rights for labor, women, minorities, and immigrants. They have fought all progressive reforms including social insurance programs and reasonable regulation of business. A convention could allow them to curb all those annoying protests by limiting the freedom of speech or assembly. They could promote a more “Christian” nation. They could move against a free press which Trump has labeled an “enemy of the people.”

Does this sound like a crazy conspiracy theory? I think not. It is not illogical to see a constitutional convention as a tool to undo what Republicans have historically opposed. There is also a historical precedent. The only other constitutional convention in our history, which created our current Constitution, was only supposed to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead the “founding fathers” created a completely new constitution that was significantly different, less democratic, and gave much more power to the national government. It was so unpopular that the only way they could get it ratified by the states was to promise the Bill of Rights.

There is evidence that this is not about budgets. If a balanced budget amendment was the goal, why don’t they pass one? The Congress and White House are controlled by Republicans. They could propose, and probably pass, a balanced budget amendment now. Why wait for four more states to sign on? Obviously they are pushing the convention for a reason, and that reason is not to create a balanced budget amendment.

They could also actually balance the Federal budget. Although the current administration is attempting to drastically cut domestic spending (and Republican controlled states like Wisconsin are doing the same) it is not about actually balancing the budget. It is about gutting the domestic programs they never supported. To actually balance the budget they would have to cut corporate welfare, business subsidies, and tax breaks. They would have severely cut the military budget and war spending. The balanced budget talk is a con job.

Another major concern is how delegates would be chosen. Republicans in state legislatures are in control of the process. They call for the convention, control who attends the convention, create the rules for the convention, and are the ones who will ratify any results. For example, Wisconsin could send seven delegates. Under the Assembly plan three would be appointed by the speaker of the Assembly, three by the president of the Senate and one appointed by the governor. In other words only Republicans would be appointed. There would be no Democratic input, no public hearings, no compromise, no judicial review, no vote by the people, and no pesky democracy.

We could use a re-write of the Constitution. It would be good to get rid of the electoral college, create equal rights for women, and end Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Contrary to the popular mythology, our august founding fathers were not saints who created the sacred text for all time. It needs to be updated to the 21st century. But given the rancorous ideological divides and the power of big money in politics, a convention could be a disaster for most of us. Certainly good changes won’t happen with a convention packed with far right zealots that exclude all other points of view.

Conservatives claim a balanced budget requirement would solve our budget problems. This is pure fantasy. It will not stop the partisan wrangling, pork barrel spending, or bad spending priorities that create budget problems. It will ONLY hamstring the government in responding to emergencies and in using fiscal policy (that is deficit spending) to attempt to manage the economy. A balanced budget requirement is a bad idea for many reasons.

What is needed is good faith efforts by the political leadership to do their jobs and manage the public purse responsibly. The Wisconsin Senate should reject a constitutional convention. Playing constitutional roulette is not a good plan for Wisconsin.