Congress and powerful elites continue to deny our right to a convention held under Article V of the United States Constitution.
By Joel S. Hirschhorn
Published February 26, 2007
For over 200 years, Congress has not done what Article V of the United States Constitution says it "shall" do. Congress has not issued a call for an Article V convention of state delegates to consider constitutional amendments, in response to two-thirds of state legislatures asking for one.
That numeric requirement - the only specified requirement in Article V - has been satisfied, with 50 states submitting over 500 requests. Such a convention operating under authority of the Constitution would be a fourth, impermanent branch of the federal system, not beholden to the three permanent branches.
That independence has been conjured into a frightening monster so that Americans fear exactly what their revered Constitution gives them the right to have. Those smart Framers of the Constitution decided that citizens need exactly what the establishment, pro-status quo elitists who run our plutocracy do not want.
There is no uncertainty about what the Framers thought the nation needed. In crystal-clear language they laid out a two-step process for amending the Constitution. First, Congress or an Article V convention of state delegates craft proposals for possible amendments.
Second, ratify proposed amendments by three-quarters of the states, either through their legislatures or state conventions, as Congress chooses. The Framers believed that Americans, acting through large numbers of state legislators, deserved a way to circumvent the excessive power of Congress or its refusal or inability to satisfy sovereign citizens - their bosses. No role was given to the federal judiciary and executive branch in amending the Constitution.
An Article V convention is a clear threat to the political, social and economic establishment exerting self-serving influence on Congress. It can put into public debate ideas for amending the Constitution that threaten established political forces, both liberal and conservative. Acting independently, it can courageously propose amendments without interference from defenders of the status quo.
Not surprisingly, many powerful people and organizations oppose an Article V convention. How have they brainwashed Americans into fearing such a convention? They created the spectre of a "runaway convention", something to fear on par with physical attack on the nation by foreign enemies or terrorists. How could something placed into our Constitution to thwart an ineffective federal government be turned on its head to become such a feared threat?
Clever people grasped a historical fact and extrapolated it into a fantasy nightmare. America's first and only constitutional convention was a runaway. Rather than do what had been planned, namely to modify the Articles of Confederation that first tied the states together, the state delegates constructed what we have for over two hundred years followed: the U.S. Constitution.
Those rascal Framers created a strong federal government that not everyone at the time wanted. The anti-status quo guys won.
Backstage power brokers have never wanted another convention that might change the political system they expertly corrupt and control. They have made people believe that a convention could destroy their constitutionally protected rights and freedoms. Or, equally bad, strange amendments would overturn the structure of our federal government and throw the nation into chaos.
No. To the contrary, there are solid reasons for demanding it.
First, there have been many state constitutional conventions and a huge number of amendments to state constitutions. Look around. Our states and their governments have not been ruined. Conventions were not hijacked and turned into weapons. And the first national constitution convention was hugely successful, even if it was a runaway.
Second, the requirement that three-quarters of the states must ratify any specific amendments produced by an Article V convention provides a safety net. This is such a high hurdle that no truly awful amendments would survive.
Third, in our modern age of media and Internet communication there would be a solar-bright light on all the convention's activities, from the election of state delegates to their debates and final amendment proposals. In fact, this temporary fourth branch of our federal system would be under more public scrutiny and less susceptible to corruption than our present, permanent branches of government.
Fourth, we should reject the indirect way of changing our constitution, namely through interpretations and judgments by those few unelected, political appointees that serve on the Supreme Court. Plus, as President George W. Bush has demonstrated, a runaway CEO of our nation along with an ineffective Congress can take big bites out of our constitutional rights and protections.
Fifth, while it is true that we have avoided political instability, we have paid a heavy price for it: a permanent culture of corruption, lying and deception that has danced around our constitutional protections and riddled American democracy with hypocrisy.
Sixth, the majority of Americans are independents, not loyal Democrats or Republicans. Only an Article V convention offers a truly independent route to addressing root problems that the political system under two-party control has allowed to fester.
Seventh, the congressional experience with proposing amendments has shown that though many may be considered, few survive. Over 11,000 have been considered by Congress, but only 33 reached the ratification phase, and only 27 were ratified, very few in the last 100 years. (The last amendment was finally ratified in 1992, 203 years after it was first proposed by Congress!)
Why should we think that a convention would agree on a huge number of amendments? With all America watching, delegates would focus on a few critical amendments likely to be ratified.
Few know about The Constitution Project, which "urges restraint in the constitutional amendment process." It was formed in 1997 to "oppose the facile rewriting of the U.S. Constitution."
They fear "unthinking tinkering with fundamental rights and liberties" - actually, conservative amendments on social and fiscal issues. The group has received funding from The Century Foundation, a liberal group. The nearly 70 members in the constitutional amendments initiative are true status quo elites. Many were members of Congress or presidential appointees. They produced guidelines for evaluating possible amendments that, as discussed in The Second Constitutional Convention by Richard Labunski, were formulated to defeat attempts to amend the Constitution.
On the political right, the John Birch Society has consistently pushed the Big Runaway Lie and said the "prospect [of a convention] is ominous." "We do not believe that, under today's mentality and morality, the nation can handle that much sovereignty in one place." To support their position, they cite elites.
Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger said, "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."
Liberal Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg said, "one of the most serious problems Article V poses is a runaway convention. There is no enforceable mechanism to prevent a convention from reporting out wholesale changes to our Constitution and Bill of Rights. ... [D]elegates could put a runaway convention in the hands of single-issue groups whose self-interest may be contrary to our national well-being."
Ardent right-wingers admire what a joint congressional resolution said in 1935: "The government of the United States is not a concession to the people from some one higher up. It is the creation and the creature of the people themselves, as absolute sovereigns." Yet, they do not trust the people to exercise our sovereignty and be smart enough to make a convention work in the public interest!
There are, luckily, pro-convention advocates. Listen to the wise words of Judge Thomas Brennan, former Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and Dean Emeritus and President of Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan: "There is no danger of a runaway convention. That phrase, 'runaway convention', and all the accompanying horror stories about repealing the Bill of Rights are utterly without substance. They are myths, harmful to democracy, invented by those who are afraid to let the people exercise their historic and God-given right to self government."
Where do we go from here? If respect for our Constitution and our sovereign selves prevails, pro-convention patriots must work hard to move the nation towards an Article V convention. The first battle is to get a convention. The second battle is to prevent a convention from being abused and co-opted by the power elites that would be out for blood after failing to prevent it from occurring.
A high level of public support is critically needed to win both battles. To win the first battle, the smart strategy is not to let people become sidetracked about specific possible amendments. Those who have fostered the Big Runaway Lie will surely posit some terrible possible amendments that would immediately frighten and alienate huge numbers of Americans. Public fear is their weapon.
In response, we should point out that what we have now is runaway public distrust of government, runaway political disengagement, runaway disgust with both the Republican and Democratic Parties, runaway economic inequality, runaway corruption of government by corporate and other special interests, and runaway mainstream media dysfunction. The only thing Americans should fear is more of the same.
Powerful elites created public fear of a convention to maintain a system they control. Do not worry about a convention being hijacked. Instead, stay focused on this ugly truth: America has already been hijacked by corporate and other special interests on the left and right.
The Supreme Court decides whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional, but it refuses to tell Congress and the nation that Congress' refusal to call an Article V convention is unconstitutional. What happened to checks and balances?
The bitter truth is that literally every individual, group and institution now holding real power opposes a second national constitutional convention. Does that make the quest for a convention futile? Only if one gives up on the large majority of Americans that should, for their own sake and the sake of future generations, want a convention. Elitists have much to lose. Everyone else has much to gain.
The fight for American democracy is not over. Our Founders fought British oppression and now we must fight congressional oppression. Can nonviolent collective action produce an Article V convention? Only if each of us says "yes!". Only if millions of Americans tell state legislatures and congressional delegations that we demand a convention!
Tools may include citizen state petitions on the Internet and thousands of community meetings arranged through websites like meetup.com. Such activities and a convention itself would provide what many believe the Framers intended to create: a deliberative democracy.
On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, esteemed political scientist James MacGregor Burns warned that "major changes will not be made until there is a severe crisis - at which time we might open the floodgates to reckless constitutional change." He advised taking thoughtful action now. "We must all become framers."
To keep working on the goal of forming "a more perfect Union" and as a political necessity and a moral obligation, we ought to have a second national constitutional convention, which means we can have one. Simply put, an Article V convention is all about "power to the people." Either you believe in it or you don't.
The people who created our nation and Constitution believed in it. They gave us Article V. Our elected mis-representatives in Congress and their masters don't believe in it. They won't willingly give us a convention.
We have a runaway Congress. That's what's frightening, and that's why we must fight for a convention.
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