Article V convention

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

The Constitution of the United States has stood for more than 200 years as the most perfect political document ever crafted by the hands of men. While other nations have crumbled under tyranny or burned in revolutions, the United States has persevered thanks to the unique strength and flexibility of its foundational document. The Wisconsin legislature is advancing an effort that could replace the Constitution with a newer version.

Article V of the Constitution is the article that allows the document to be revised and updated over time. It is under Article V that the Bill of Rights was passed, slaves were freed, women were granted the right to vote, alcohol was banned and then permitted again, and the federal government was given the power to tax our incomes. All of those amendments were enacted under the part of Article V that allows the federal legislature to initiate specific Constitutional amendments by passing them with a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Congress. Then three-fourths of the states must ratify the amendments.

But Article V allows another procedure to amend the Constitution that has never been followed whereby the states initiate the amendment process. The Constitution allows for two-thirds of the states to call a full Constitutional Convention which can then draft and pass one or several amendments to the Constitution. Whatever amendments the convention passes must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states in order to take effect. It is this second amendment procedure that the Wisconsin Assembly have harkened to when they advanced a resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention. If the Senate and governor agree, Wisconsin will become the 28th state to call for a convention. Thirty-four states are required for a convention to be convened.

The push for a Constitutional Convention is born out of frustration. The federal government has accumulated a staggering national debt and shows no sign of addressing it any time soon. As the national debt approaches $20 trillion — which is greater than the annual gross domestic product of the nation — it has robbed future generations of their wealth and threatens to destabilize our nation. Such enormous debt has spurred revolutions and totalitarianism in other nations. Americans should not have such hubris to think us immune from such consequences.

For generations, politicians in the federal government have demonstrated a collective fiscal restraint that would make drunken sailors seem circumspect, so many folks in the states think it is time to call a Constitutional Convention to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment that would require that the federal government always have a balanced budget like the state of Wisconsin.

While it sounds like a good idea, forcing the federal government to have a balanced budget would be lunacy. In times of war or deep recession, deficit spending is often sound fiscal policy. The problem with the federal government is that in times of peace and economic expansion, when they should be taking advantage of natural surpluses to reduce the debt, they continue to spend and run deficits. The politicians in Washington need to be checked on their spending, but a Balanced Budget Amendment is not the way to do it.

But the debate over a Constitutional Convention has little to do with the actual justification for it. Opponents cite the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the convention that created our Constitution, as the reason to avoid another one. The delegates of the Convention of 1787 were convened with a limited charter to make slight adjustments to some perceived malformations of the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the delegates almost immediately jettisoned their original charter and decided to write a new constitution from scratch. Opponents of a new Constitutional Convention fear that modern delegates may follow their forbearers’ example.

Would that be a bad thing? Opponents are fearmongering that modern constitutional delegates would strip the Constitution of protections for minorities and disenfranchise people. Such fears are utter rubbish spouted by cynical hacks. What many of them really fear is that many of the courtimposed corruptions of the Constitution, like federal power to force people to purchase health insurance, will be annulled by a redrafting of our nation’s fundamental document.

There is a fallacy in historical study that forgets that while a few of the delegates to the convention that created our remarkable Constitution were brilliant, most were fairly average intellects. And all of them were subject to the human faults of vanity, envy, greed, selfishness, bigotry and all of the other sins that comprise the human condition. The divine spark in our Constitution is that it managed to acknowledge and balance many of these human failures to create a framework that has been responsible for the greatest expansion of liberty and prosperity in the history of the world.

A modern Constitutional Convention may stick to its stated charter to create a Balanced Budget Amendment, but it may also completely cast aside our venerated Constitution and try to write a new one. Perhaps that divine spark will once again manifest itself is something even greater than the sum of the delegates’ abilities. Perhaps not.

In either case it would take ratification by three-fourths of the states, which is a high standard that would represent a remarkably broad consensus by We the People. Such a high, but not impossible, threshold for Constitutional reform is yet another example of the brilliance of our 1787 Constitution and an affirmation of our founders’ wisdom. They wrote Article V with the humility that they were not perfect and the forethought that future Americans may wish to create a new Constitution. Perhaps it is time to see if we can do it any better.