Would a constitutional convention get it right?
By Dylan Matthews
Virginia Del. James LeMunyon has an interesting but wrong-headed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for a national constitutional convention.
The remedy is in Article V of the Constitution, which permits a convention to be called for the purpose of proposing constitutional amendments. Any proposed amendment then would have to be ratified by both houses of 38 state legislatures (three-fourths of the states). This entails 76 separate votes in the affirmative by two houses of the 38 state legislatures. (Nebraska, with its unicameral legislature, would be an exception.)
Interest in calling a first-ever Article V convention is growing at the state level. A petition for such a convention passed the Florida Senate last month, to propose amendments requiring a balanced budget and to restrain the growth of the national government. If approved by the House, Florida would be the 20th state with an active call to do so. In the Virginia House of Delegates, I introduced a resolution (H.J. 183) calling for a constitutional convention to restrain the national government as well. Requests by two-thirds or 34 states are required for a convention to be called.
This is certainly easier than going through both houses of Congress if one wants to reform the House or Senate, but it also limits the scope of what can be accomplished. This puts even more power to the states than the traditional amendment procedure does, and so further biases outcomes toward state preferences. So if one believes, as I do, that the Senate is a disproportionate and gridlock-inducing body that can and ought to be abolished, the fact that most states have more influence in the Senate than the House, and would stand to lose if the former were eliminated, makes the convention route futile. Admittedly, Senate abolition isn't happening anyway, but more modest reforms would also be stopped by states pursuing their interests as states. Russ Feingold's amendment requiring special elections to fill Senate vacancies would limit the states' ability to regulate succession, and states would thus likely be resistant.
What's more, LeMunyon's preferred constitutional changes are a useful reminder that most mainstream amendment proposals are terrible ideas. LeMunyon proposes a balanced budget amendment, which would have a catastrophic economic impact, especially in recessions. Imagine if TARP hadn't passed, even more major banks had failed, and the federal government was not able to do any fiscal stimulus to clean up the mess, and you start to get just how irresponsible a balanced budget amendment would be. But it sure was popular the last time it was seriously debated, and the support of 38 state legislatures, most of whom are operating under balanced budget amendments of their own, seems achievable. In the past, senators and representatives who understand why deficit spending is useful have been able to nip balanced budget amendment proposals in the bud, but state legislatures would show less reticence. LeMunyon also mentions an amendment banning "unfunded mandates." He's unclear on what he means by this, but it would likely involve giving states an excuse to cut federally directed programs, such as special education funding or disabilities protections. States would love it, but it'd be terrible policy for obvious reasons. And that's not even mentioning flavor of the week culture war amendments – school prayer, same-sex marriage, flag-burning – that could sneak out of a constitutional convention. The Constitution could use serious reform, but the institutional changes of the type procedural-minded liberals advocate don't have the constituency that silly and reckless proposals do. Until there's a general consensus that our institutions need to change, a convention would just bring trouble.
Posted by: MosBen | April 1, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: theorajones1 | April 1, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: MosBen | April 1, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: RichardCA | April 1, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: obrier2 | April 1, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Dug0915 | April 1, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: steven_blumrosen | April 1, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Renaud21 | April 1, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: patriotgmalou | April 1, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: patriotgmalou | April 1, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: rmgregory | April 1, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: acahorvath | April 1, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Modicum | April 1, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Modicum | April 1, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Iconoblaster | April 1, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Iconoblaster | April 1, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: MosBen | April 1, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: dasimon | April 1, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JBaustian | April 1, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: givenallthings | April 2, 2010 4:58 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: JoelSHirschhorn | April 2, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: dollarwatcher | April 2, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: adamiani | April 3, 2010 2:36 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: JimLeMunyon | April 3, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.