The con-con con

editing-constitutionA proposal that could lead to far-reaching and radical changes to America’s time-tested constitution is being pushed in states across the country this year. Oklahoma would be well-advised to resist jumping aboard this particular train.

In Oklahoma and other states, bills have been introduced calling for a constitutional convention, or “con-con,” to amend the U.S. Constitution in order to approve a federal Balanced Budget Amendment, among other possible constitutional changes. Under Article V of the Constitution, a convention to amend the Constitution must be convened if two-thirds of the states call for one. In U.S. history, no convention has ever been convened since the one that produced the Constitution in 1787. Instead, all 27 constitutional amendments have been approved first by a two-thirds vote in Congress and then ratified by three-quarters of the states. 

Under SJR 4, a resolution filed by Sen. Rob Standridge, the constitutional convention would have the broad mandate to propose amendments to “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government,” “limit the powers and jurisdictions of the federal government,” and enact federal term limits. A companion measure, SB 53,  lays out the appointment process and responsibilities for delegates to the convention. (Similar measures have been filed by Sen. Brecheen and Rep. Banz).

While there is widespread agreement that Congress must better manage its finances, pursuing this goal through a constitutional convention is very dangerous. Many prominent constitutional scholars from across the ideological spectrum agree that once a convention is called, neither the states nor Congress have the power to limit its actions, creating the risk of destabilizing the nation’s entire constitutional framework.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger stated the case clearly:  

There is no effective way to limit or muzzle the actions of a Constitutional Convention. The convention could make its own rules and set its own agenda. Congress might try to limit the convention to one amendment or to one issue, but there is no way to assure that the convention would obey. After a convention is convened, it will be too late to stop the convention if we don’t like its agenda. The meeting in 1787 ignored the limit placed by the confederation Congress “for the sole and express purpose.”

More recently, Justice Antonin Scalia said, “I certainly would not want a constitutional convention. Whoa! Who knows what would come of it?”

Oklahoma’s legislators recognized these dangers just five years ago when they  adopted a resolution that rescinded earlier legislation calling for a constitutional convention to enact a Balanced Budget Amendment. The 2009 resolution, authored by Sen. Randy Brogdon, Rep. David Dank, and other leading Republican legislators, noted that that constitution has been amended many times “without the need to resort to a constitutional convention” and “has been found to be a sound document which protects the lives and liberties of the citizens.” The resolution affirmed that “there is no need for, and in fact, there is great danger in, a new constitution or in opening the Constitution to sweeping changes, the adoption of which would only create legal chaos in this nation and only begin the process of another two centuries of litigation over its meaning and interpretation.” The resolution to rescind the earlier call for a convention passed 41-2 in the Senate and 90-6 in the House.

Strong conservative voices are again speaking out against a constitutional convention. Rep. Mike Ritze is a staunch and vocal opponent;  last year he led the successful fight to defeat a convention resolution, stating that a majority of his colleagues “did not want to open the Pandora’s box of a con-con.” In a recent editorial, John Birch Society President John McManus declared a con-con to be “enormously dangerous,” with the risk that it “could abolish the Bill of Rights, cancel term limits on the presidential office, destroy numerous limitations of federal power, etc.”

Along with the enormous uncertainty and danger posed by a constitutional convention itself, there are strong reasons to be wary of proposals for a federal Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA). By requiring the federal government to balance the budget every year, even during a major economic downturn, a BBA would force Congress to enact steep budget cuts or tax hikes, making recessions longer and deeper.  A BBA would also create great ongoing pressure for Congress to cut funding for important priorities, including education, transportation, medical research, and even Medicare and Social Security. Meanwhile, many conservatives believe that a balanced budget amendment “would be so full of loopholes as to be worthless.”

Oklahoma legislators acted wisely in rejecting con-con in 2009, but the idea has now resurfaced and is being promoted heavily behind-the-scenes by the American Legislative Exchange Council and other influential interest groups. Whatever challenges the United States faces, the Constitution provides a solid bedrock for our system of government that has stood the test of time and that can be amended as needed. We don’t need to put everything at risk with a constitutional convention whose course and outcome can neither be known nor controlled.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Blatt helped found OK Policy in 2008 and became the organization's Executive Director in 2010. David previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers. He lives in Tulsa with his wife, Patty Hipsher, a special education teacher in Broken Arrow, and their son, Noah.

3 thoughts on “The con-con con

  1. Terrorists and third-world dictators must be delighted to see the U.S. considering such self-destruction.

    Any worthy amendment to our nation’s constitution can be achieved through the time-tested process provided by our nation’s founders. Therefore a “con-con” would be a drain on our resources (time, money and attention) at a time when it is vital that our nation should, instead, place our attention on coping with threats to our national security and rebuilding our economy.

    Our citizens are so politically polarized now that it is crippling our democracy. Policy makers find it difficult to reach compromise on many issues. Citizens are so disgusted tha they have tuned out and dropped out of the political process in record numbers. Witness the gridlock in Washington. Witness the poor voter turn out during elections. A “con-con” now would only make our country more polarized.

    While I respect Sen. Coburn’s intentions, I fear that his support of this proposal is short-sighted.

  2. Remember folks, an Article V Convention of States IS NOT A CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION! A constitutional convention meets to establish an entirely new constitution; nobody wants that, NOT NOW, NOT EVER!

    But we do need an Article V Convention of States! Because there are serious issues facing this country…one of which is a humongous national debt which will be very painful to resolve. And yes, we should enforce our current laws. But what if our US Attorney General will not? Do you suppose there is at least one federal law you don’t agree with or is patently wrong? What can you do about it? Read on.

    An Article V Convention of States is a group of commissioners(delegates) who meet to propose amendments to the constitution. They don’t get to ratify them, that’s later by another group. They are there to sift through the proposals. If a proposed amendment falls under the purview of the aggregated resolutions of at least 34 states, a fiduciary commissioner (delegate) can propose that amendment…like maybe term limits on elected officials or maybe the state’s right to vote to overturn a federal law. Does that mean it will be automatically adopted for later ratified by the states? Nope, it’s judged by the commissioners to see if it falls under the purview of the resolutions and if so, it is voted on by the convention members (commissioners). If adopted, after the convention it still must then later be voted upon and passed by 3/4 of the states legislatures or Ratification Convention members. So just try proposing elimination of the 2nd amendment. Don’t blame me if you get laughed out of town.

    An Article V Convention of States can help restore states’s sovereignity and curtail federal overreach. It is convened to offer AMENDMENTS to the constitution. Can you say Bill of Rights? What were they? They were the first ten amendments to the constitution. They did not comprise a new constitution! And they were a good thing…including things like freedom of speech, the right to keep and bear arms. Have we forgotten that those were AMENDMENTS and that all the amendments combined have not made the sky fall?

    The US Congress, which can amend the constitution, is composed of ordinary people. Don’t you suppose there are some people in each state that can propose common sense amendments too? I don’t suppose so, I know so. That’s why I favor an Article V CONVENTION OF STATES. The resolution has passed in Oklahoma. We need to keep the faith that other state legislatures will pass the Article V Convention of States resolution. Remember, it’s a good thing and the sky won’t fall.

    I had a college professor that almost daily said, “No matter how good something is, it can always be made better.” Certain well debated amendments can make our nation better too!

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