Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.

Constitutional convention

Utah state Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, left, and Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, joined more than 80 state lawmakers from across the country in 2015 in Utah to plan for a convention to revise the U.S. Constitution. Kapenga is seeking a national constitutional convention to adopt a balanced budget amendment.

Rick Bowmer

It’s not surprising that Democrats — who tend to be more honest about their profligate spending than Republicans — oppose a constitutional convention aimed at passing an amendment to require a balanced federal budget.

It is surprising to see ostensibly nonpartisan “good government” and civil liberties groups opposing efforts to exercise a constitutional right.

Exercising a right is essentially what Wisconsin’s Republican state lawmakers are doing by pursuing measures calling for a constitutional convention under Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution. It allows for a convention if two-thirds of the states demand it.

State Sen. Chris Kapenga has been leading the charge for a convention, and among the groups that have come out against the idea are the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

The ACLU of Wisconsin and Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, note there are a lot of unanswered questions about what would be the first constitutional convention since the Constitution was drafted in 1787.

Could delegates consider amendments other than one for a balanced budget? Would a simple or super majority be required to recommend amendments? Who would set rules for how the convention operates? The list is long.

“Chris Kapenga is not James Madison,” Heck said. “The problem is we don’t know what would happen.”

Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, also points to the painfully obvious: Republican lawmakers in Congress don’t need an amendment to pass a balanced budget. “They have the majorities needed to do it legislatively,” she said.

Passing a balanced budget amendment is akin to going on a diet by putting a lock on your refrigerator and giving the key to a neighbor: a really sad admission of a real lack of will power.

Heck called a convention an “end run,” and said if a balanced budget amendment is needed, it should be added to the Constitution like all the other 27 amendments were: passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states.

That’s the other way Article 5 allows for adding amendments, but it’s not like the convention route is a cakewalk. It requires getting two-thirds of states to first call for a convention and then three-fourths, or 38, states to ratify any amendments it proposes.

In fact, it sounds like exactly the kind of constitutional check on, and separation of, powers that short-circuits a lot of awful ideas. Can you imagine what Donald Trump would be able to do if he were unconstrained by, for example, an independent judiciary and a free press?

Kaminski said: “Lawmakers have a constitutional right to call for a convention, but we don’t want them to do so because it would put all of our citizen rights protected in the Constitution at risk.”

But by opposing the call for convention, good government groups that make a point of defending the Constitution appear to picking and choosing parts of the Constitution worth defending and doubting a system of government that’s served us pretty well.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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