Beware a U.S. Constitutional Convention
The U.S. Constitution is the document that ultimately impacts every facet of our lives – our sense of freedom, our belief in equal justice for all and our ability to pursue our dreams. It is a document for which I have enormous respect.
Yet one part of the Constitution has never been fully utilized: a section of Article V dealing with amending the Constitution via constitutional convention.
The Constitution has been amended by acts of Congress 27 times. Amendments must be approved by two-thirds in both houses with ratification by three-fourths of the states.
However also under article V, if two-thirds of the states (34 out of 50) call for a constitutional convention, one would be held for the purpose of proposing amendments which would then need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
There are otherwise no guidelines in the U.S. Constitution for how such a convention would be organized or the limits on what issues could be tackled, except that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate. The Constitution does not say if more than a simple majority vote of delegates to the convention is needed to propose an amendment.
Readers would think that if any serious effort were occurring to call a U.S. constitutional convention, it would be front-line news.
Thus you may be as surprised as I was that currently 28 states have passed resolutions calling for a U.S. constitutional convention, with Maine in March considering becoming the 29th state. The alleged purpose is to propose an amendment requiring a balanced U.S. federal budget. Illinois has not passed such a resolution.
The effort has been largely pushed by Republican-controlled legislatures. Nineteen states were serious enough about the effort to send 71 Republican delegates to a four-day planning session in Phoenix in 2017 to discuss how such a convention would be run.
With a number of Republican-controlled legislatures yet to vote on such a resolution, the potential is there to have such a convention called as early as 2019.
Why should we be concerned?
Well, the first Constitutional Convention was called with the narrow focus to amend the Articles of Confederation to promote trade between the states. The final product was basically a new organizational document for governing the nation. Once called, a convention could go anywhere.
The Articles of Confederation required unanimous approval to be amended. The U.S. Constitutional Convention disregarded this and simply adopted the current standard for amendment approval. There would be nothing to prevent a new convention from amending the standards for approval.
Finally, the U.S. courts are not given authority to control a convention, only to interpret the Constitution as written and its amendments. If proposed amendments are ratified, then those amendments become the new rules we live by and the court interprets the new rules. Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Warren Burger at different times acknowledged the likely inability to limit what occurs in a constitutional convention.
I would be concerned if either party were in a position to unilaterally propose a convention. With Republicans controlling both houses of the legislature in 32 states, they are in excellent position to push for a convention.
Why the push? Maybe it is just to promote a balanced budget. But maybe it is a last-ditch effort to consolidate power in the face of a shifting electorate that has given the Democratic presidential candidate the majority of the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 elections.
So now we are in an election year for state representatives and senators. Often they receive little attention compared to statewide races. But as this discussion should make clear, they will have the ability to help decide if we as a nation take a plunge into a great unknown.
Where legislative candidates stand on this issue will be key to deciding my vote.
Dr. Soltys is a retired professor emeritus who still teaches at SIU School of Medicine on a volunteer basis.