During the four months the Federal Convention met in the summer of 1787 deliberating on the greatest news story in American history, not one word was reported in the 75 American newspapers. Americans in the new republic faced huge war debts, worthless paper money, an immense trade balance, and a crumbling security with Americans held hostage in the Mediterranean area by Algerian pirates. Politicians faced repercussions from Shaw’s rebellion against land foreclosures in Massachusetts and realized a need for stronger government.
There are correlations between those events and circumstances today. Today, as in 1787, the nation’s press is remiss in reporting on a controversial effort to redefine our nation’s Constitution: there is a dedicated effort underway to call a constitutional convention to amend the nation’s Constitution. The Constitution requires two-thirds (34) of the states to call for such a convention before the country may hold one to consider amending the Constitution.
As of now, 32 states have called for such a convention — we are just two states away from holding a constitutional convention.
Some of those seeking the convention want to add “urgently needed … popular” constitutional changes, like balancing the federal budget, requiring voluntary prayer in public schools, and restricting abortions. Others want to add women’s rights to the Constitution, make Senate and House terms longer, abolish the Electoral College in selecting a president, limit terms for Supreme Court justices, and restrict the rights of the accused. While some changes may be worthy, we already have proven ways to get them into the Constitution.
Opponents to the convention are concerned since there are no legal bounds as to what such a convention could do. Indeed, many have been opposed to an open-ended call for such a convention because it could become a runaway event in which every crackpot suggestion for constitutional change would be permitted.
Countering the view that a constitutional convention potentially threatens the Bill of Rights, state’s rights, and Congress itself, is the recommendation that the convention could be limited to a specific issues, such as the proposed requirement for a balanced budget. But there is no guarantee that such a limitation would stand up under the pressures of a convention; there probably would be constant calls for broadening the discussion.
In the past, the mere threat of a constitutional convention has been impetus enough to get a recalcitrant Congress to act. The 17th Amendment, providing for direct election of Senators, was proposed by Congress after 30 states petitioned for a convention to make the change. In the early 1970s, the threat of a petition drive by some governors persuaded Congress to enact revenue sharing legislation.
The National Taxpayers Union, the conservative lobby behind the current push for a constitutional convention, acknowledges that the drive is essentially part of a strategy to force Congress to draft its own budget amendment. Whether that happens or not, at the very least the American people should be aware that we are just two states away from a constitutional convention that could significantly change the political system we have had for the past 200 years.
THE ECONOMIST, 5/21/88, “The Constitution: Lid on to keep the worms out,” pp 28-29; USA TODAY, 3/3/89, “DEBATE: We shouldn’t tinker with Constitution,” p 8A.