Last week Wisconsin became the 28th state legislature to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional convention. Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides that a constitutional convention may take place if two-thirds of the states call for one. That means six more states would need to call for a constitutional convention in order for one to take place.
There has not been a constitutional convention since 1787 when the current Constitution was written after it was recognized that the original Articles of Confederation written during the Revolution and ratified in 1781 did not provide adequate cohesion for the new nation.
Even the new Constitution quickly proved inadequate, requiring Congress to propose the Bill of Rights, which became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution when they were ratified by the states in 1791. Since then 23 additional constitutional amendments have been proposed, and 17 of them have been ratified. Some of these amendments changed prior aspects of the Constitution (e.g., slavery, election of the Senate, revisions to how the president is elected, ending prohibition of alcohol, presidential term limits, granting presidential electors to the District of Columbia, and establishing a succession order to the president).
There has not been a constitutional amendment ratified since 1992, when the 27th Amendment, which delays any congressional salary raises approved by Congress until the next Congress is elected. That amendment took 202 years to ratify, by far the longest period of time of any amendment.
Most progressives have opposed efforts by states to approve a resolution calling for a constitutional convention because the impetus for these resolutions, which have been pushed by the fiscally conservative Koch brothers, is to adopt a balanced federal budget requirement into our Constitution. Most progressives and many economists believe that such a balanced budget would be ruinous for the American economy and that funding for social programs would be eviscerated under such an amendment.
The surprising aspect of progressive opposition is that it is driven by an assumption that fiscal and social conservatives will prevail and get their way. It further presumes that the U.S. Constitution is just fine as it is, when in reality there are a number constitutional provisions that progressives can and should push to amend should a constitutional convention take place.
Indeed, instead of just playing defense, affirmatively proposing a progressive agenda for a constitutional convention could actually rally grass-roots support to accomplish the following important goals:
• Revising the First Amendment to clarify that political donations are not protected as free speech. This would go a long way toward elimination of secretive and huge donations to politicians, which have turned our elections into a buyer-takes-all nightmare.
• Revising the Second Amendment to clarify that ownership of guns can be tightly regulated and that weapons that have no legitimate purpose other than to commit mass murder can be outlawed.
• Revising the way we elect our president by eliminating the Electoral College, thereby assuring voters that a majority of voters will elect our president.
• Establishing a right to legal counsel in civil cases so that people cannot be evicted or have other civil rights removed without representation.
• Granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
• Finally passing the Equal Rights Amendment to ensure that women have the same rights as men.
Of course, there may be other progressive ways we can improve our Constitution, but if progressives simply stand pat with their current “just say no” to a constitutional convention, we will not even have these discussions to find out what other wonderful ideas might exist to improve a document that was originally written when it was legal to own slaves and women did not have the right to vote.
To be clear, a constitutional convention in the 21st century would open our nation to potentially regressive changes to our Constitution, but in this case, a good defense requires a very strong offense.
Jeff Spitzer-Resnick is a Madison attorney and consultant. This column was first published on his blog.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.