A 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.