Can we trust the Constitution to fix itself?

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Sometimes, Americans these days can be so distrustful that systemic change can occur – even if they would like that change – that they won’t take advantage of a mechanism that would make it possible to at least try.

I’m referring to a vote Monday by the Arkansas Senate against a resolution calling for a Convention of States. That’s a national movement to gather delegates to consider constitutional amendments that would limit the federal government, impose budget restraints and enact term limits.

Those are the kinds of things Republicans often say they support, particularly the limiting government part. Several states have already signed on. In Arkansas, it failed Monday, 13-17, with eight Republicans voting no and four senators not voting. The vote was expunged, which means it can be reconsidered later, but it probably won’t be.

The Constitution’s Article V contains two mechanisms for amending the Constitution – one initiated by Congress, which is how all 27 amendments have been ratified, and one initiated by the states, which has never been used successfully.

In presenting the resolution, the sponsor, Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, imagined a conversation he might have with Founding Father James Madison about the government’s current size and scope and about the $20 trillion national debt. Stubblefield wondered if Madison would even know what a trillion is – as if any of us do.

But the whole idea stalled amongst questions from both Republicans and Democrats about how the process would work, which Stubblefield couldn’t answer with specificity. Of course he couldn’t – it’s never been used before. The process would work like everything is supposed to work in this country: The Constitution lays out a broad framework, and then we have to figure out the details as we go along.

This is one of those issues that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from the press but has gotten a lot of attention from a small number of activists from both sides. Many of the opponents are conservatives who fear a “runaway convention” where delegates suddenly start radically changing America and stripping us of our rights.

But any amendment must negotiate a gauntlet of constitutional roadblocks. Thirty-four states must approve a resolution, which would lead Congress to call a convention, which would require each state to select a delegation, who then would gather to vote on proposed amendments, which then would have to be approved by 38 state legislatures.

Thirty-eight states couldn’t agree on what kind of pizza to order, so it’s highly unlikely that anything crazy would get through.

The Article V provision, in fact, is consistent with the rest of the Constitution, which purposely makes it hard to get anything done. It was placed in the Constitution deliberately because the Founders knew that, sometimes, problems created by elected officials in Washington would have to be solved from the outside and then forced upon them. As examples, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, a supporter, pointed out that Article V had been used to pass the Bill of Rights, end slavery, and give women the right to vote. The only difference was that the process had started with Congress each time, and this time, the states would do it.

Clearly, 21 senators didn’t feel that way. If it’s because they didn’t agree with the Convention of States’ goals, then that’s understandable, even laudable, because if you don’t want to reduce government or pass a balanced budget amendment or enact term limits, you shouldn’t vote for a convention that would consider those things.

However, some of those no voters want those things to happen, and a constitutional amendment may be the only way. After 200-plus years of doing otherwise, lawmakers in Washington are not going to suddenly limit their power or balance the budget consistently, regardless of whether the president is named “Obama” or “Trump.”

The Founding Fathers created a mechanism in the Constitution to address problems that aren’t being solved through the other mechanisms we’re accustomed to using. A states-led convention to accomplish what you say you want to accomplish isn’t messing with the Constitution. It’s using it as it was intended.

What some of the senators who voted no were saying is that they don’t trust the Constitution’s own mechanisms for fixing itself, which means that, to balance the federal budget, for example, we’re going to have to use its other mechanisms that haven’t worked in the past.

Fine. The national debt is $20 trillion, and rising. Which one should we give another try?

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