Constitutional Convention: A Dangerous and Unnecessary Game

English: Painting, 1856, by Junius Brutus Stea...
English: Painting, 1856, by Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Supporters of a national constitutional convention, as provided for in Article V of the US Constitution, have gained the support of 27 state legislatures for the idea. They need 34.

Republicans and Democrats are at war both with each other and within their own parties over the proposal. Some Republicans want such a convention for the purpose of getting a “balanced budget” amendment.

Some Democrats also want a convention for the purpose of overturning the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and regulating political campaign spending.

Some members of both parties fear that a convention might get out of hand, producing unforeseen  results. History says these Cassandras are correct.

In May of 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states met in Philadelphia to propose amendments to the young nation’s Articles of Confederation. With Rhode Island boycotting and the Articles requiring ratification by all 13 states to amend, the idea looked dead on arrival.

But the Philadelphia convention was, in essence, the first stage of a coup d’etat. Instead of proposing amendments for unanimous consent, the delegates rolled out plans to abandon the Articles for an entirely new system of government, peremptorily re-setting the bar for their new “Constitution.” It would, they announced, become effective upon ratification by only nine states.

For better or worse, they pulled it off.  The US Constitution has been “the supreme law of the land” since 1789.

A new constitutional convention is a bad idea for two reasons, both rooted in our history.

The first reason, as outlined above, is that regardless of the reasons for calling such a convention, it would likely end up recommending amendments above and beyond — or contrary to — those its promoters contemplate. It could even go rogue, as Philadelphia’s cabal did.

The second reason is that, just as the existing Constitution  is more honored in the breach than in the observance, any amendments moved by a new convention and ratified by the states would be similarly treated. New government powers created by the new amendments would be vigorously used. New limits on government power so created would simply be ignored.

We don’t need a balanced budget amendment. If Congress wanted to balance the budget, it would do so. If the Constitution requires it to do so and forbids it to borrow money, the politicians will find a way. There will likely be an exception for times of war, so they’ll just declare war and never undeclare it. Or they’ll just print money and give it to themselves to spend, inflating the money in our pockets as a hidden tax.

As far as money in politics is concerned, there’s no chance whatsoever of reining that in. Money always finds open wallets to worm its way into, constitutions and laws notwithstanding.

If the promoters of a constitutional convention place so much importance on the US Constitution, perhaps they should turn their attention to making America’s politicians obey it as it exists. That would be a good start toward meaningful change.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • Cathy

    Totally agree with you! We have to begin rescinding the applications which have passed already. The elites in government think they know what is best for “we the people” and the people are totally unaware we could lose our Constitution. We don’t have principled men like the Founders to protect us. And Congress controls the convention process if you read Article V. There is so much misleading information out there! Everyone, please urge your state legislators to defeat all applications to Congress for an Article V Convention, and where the measure has already passed (like Florida) urge them to rescind their application. Do you think the elites in power these days support unalienable rights?

  • beauwillie

    The problem with columns like this one is that they attempt to rewrite history in terms so
    extreme as to deserve to be characterized as either the fear-mongering rantings of constitutional and historical illiterates or deliberate falsehoods.

    There is nothing in the Articles of Confederation that gave the Continental Congress any power to dictate to the Sovereign States what they might or might not consider in the
    Constitutional Convention. In fact, the call for the Constitutional Convention did not even originate in the Congress and instead, originated in the Annapolis Convention of the States of 1786. A majority of the Sovereign States had already selected their delegates and were moving toward the Constitutional Convention before the Congress issued its advisory resolution in March, 1787. Even then,their belated resolution offered only the “opinion”,- their word, not mine,- that the convention should focus on amending the Articles. James Madison
    thoroughly debunks the writer’s claim that the Constitutional Convention was a rogue convention in Federalist 40. Read the historical record.

    The writer then makes the intellectually dishonest and flippant claim that any amendments
    coming out of the process would be pointless since they “would simply be ignored” by the Washington establishment. His mind-set is apparently incapable of recognizing that the
    Constitution we have today is not the Constitution of the Founders. It is instead the product of over 150 years of SCOTUS decisions given legitimacy by Marbury v. Madison and the difficulty of establishing “standing,” to mount challenges. Both of these taken together invite the taking of liberties with what the Founders intended. A Constitutional amendment that would limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, clarify these constitutional issues in keeping with what the Founders intended, and restore the sovereignty (and
    standing) of the States in such matters could be ignored only at the peril of the offender

    There are other equally misleading allegations in the Article that parrot the Anti-Constitution
    propaganda of the John Birch Society and the Eagle Forum, groups hat have been
    hoodwinked by the left into opposing an Article V amending convention (See Professor Robert Natelson’s commentary, The Liberal Establishment’s Disinformation Campaign Against Article V at the Convention of States website). Perhaps, sooner or later, they will come to realize how wrong they are and how much they have been misled. But then again, it may be too bitter a pill to swallow for them to admit how wrong they have been.