Why would a prominent law professor supposedly in favor of having the nation’s second constitutional convention organize a symposium where the keynote speaker is dead set against a convention? And why pack the three subsequent panels with people against a convention? I kept asking myself these questions as I attended the recent symposium that Larry Sabato had the audacity to title “National Constitution Convention.”
When I first heard about the event I was troubled by how it was being marketed as, literally, a national constitutional convention – not a conference about a second convention, or the case for the first time use of the option in Article V of the Constitution to hold a convention of state delegates to consider making proposed amendments. Why sell the event as a national constitution convention? The answer became clear:
to sell Larry Sabato’s latest book that sets forth a large number of constitutional amendments, most of which both the panelists and nearly everyone else examining them rejects.This raised another troubling question: Why would someone who sincerely believes our nation needs another convention, rather than relying on Congress to propose amendments, purposefully set forth so many controversial amendments? History has shown that the many attempts to get an Article V convention failed because each of them was linked to advocacy for a specific amendment. When people opposed an amendment they automatically opposed an Article V convention. So here comes Larry Sabato who engineers a lot of public attention to over 20 amendments that many will oppose. True, it brings attention to amending the Constitution. But does he think that doing this will actually promote support for the nation’s first Article V convention? It certainly did not do that at his symposium. Consider these public positions given at the event:
Keynote speaker Geraldine Ferraro, former vice presidential nominee, could not have been more anti-convention. She said she was “not a fan of a second convention” and is “afraid of one.” While she articulated considerable fears about the damage a convention could do, she failed to even mention the safety net created by the Framers in Article V: the difficult ratification process where three-quarters of the states would have to approve every proposed amendment. Such an obvious bias cannot be overlooked when considering her perspective and comments – so typical of political establishment elites protecting the status quo.
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The biggest event speaker was Supreme Court Justice Alito who said he was “sceptical” about the nation having the kind of talent for a second convention that was present at the first one. “I’m sceptical we’d be so fortunate if we tried it a second time,” he said. He seems to not understand that our current corrupt, dysfunctional political system has for some time not attracted the very best people. He also failed to mention the 2006 decision he supported with the rest of the Supreme Court to not consider a federal lawsuit, Walker vs. Members of Congress, that dealt specifically with the obligation of Congress to obey the Constitution and call an Article V Convention.
Several panelists took the position that Americans do not have sufficient civic literary or education to support having a convention, and that we could not do better than the original Framers, ignoring many of the subsequent amendments that have been extremely important because they improved upon the initial Constitution. Not one speaker recognized that there have been hundreds of state constitutional conventions, none of which wrecked state constitutions.
Lance Cargill, Oklahoma Speaker of the House, expressed concerns about a new convention causing political and economic instabilities. Could one expect anything more from the status quo political establishment? There was not one person on the symposium panels that could be considered a true activist advocating for an Article V convention as a critically need path to major political reforms.
One of the panelists noted that Sabato talks about “a new Constitution” and, of course, that rightfully frightens people. In fact, all an Article V convention can do is propose specific amendments to the current Constitution. It just feeds opposition to a convention to speak of a “new Constitution.” So why does Sabato do that?
Interestingly, one of Sabato's proposals for a balanced budget amendment received sufficient applications from the states to cause a convention call by Congress which it disregarded, which he should know and take a strong position on.
Let me give Sabato deserved thanks for pointing out a number of facts that theoretically should build public support for an Article V convention. He has correctly emphasized that the Founders gave us the Article V convention option because they “didn’t trust Congress.” And he has made it clear that Congress has refused to give Americans the convention option because they fear changing the political system by which they have gotten their jobs. “Congress is a burial ground for constitutional amendments,” he said. He has also made it abundantly clear that the Founders did not believe that the original Constitution was “perfect” and that, indeed, they “never intended it to be sacred and untouchable.” He has noted that the convention “was the Founders’ preferred method.” He likes quoting Thomas Jefferson who believed in periodic rebellions to safeguard American democracy. He should also quote Hamilton who stated a convention call was "peremptory" and that "Congress shall have no option" regarding a convention call.
In sum, on the one hand Sabato recognizes the need for constitutional amendments and that the route to getting important ones is through an Article V convention. On the other hand, however, nothing he is doing in his efforts promoting his latest book seem effective in actually building public support for the very difficult task of getting – after 220 years – the first Article V convention. How can we reconcile this dichotomy?
He expresses no sense of urgency despite recognizing the current political and government system is broken. “It will probably take a generation before anything happens, if it happens then,” he said – and a generation today means about 30 years. It would appear the professor is content simply to write a book about the issues, stir up a lot of negative feelings about a convention, but solve nothing regarding the problem.
He seems stuck in an academic mindset rather than proudly arguing for reform through a convention. He speaks promotes school mock constitutional conventions. In other words, he seems to have capitulated to a pretty negative perspective that despite having a big set of revolting conditions the country is not ready for soon having an Article V convention to reform and fix our broken system. Sabato knows that the Article V convention option was put into the Constitution because the Framers anticipated that the public might someday lose confidence in the federal government, and he surely knows that that day has arrived.
As a co-founder of Friends of the Article V Convention at www.foavc.org I welcome more explicit support for pressuring Congress to obey the Constitution and their oath of office by acknowledging that there have been over 500 applications from all 50 states for a convention. This more than satisfies the one and only requirement specified in Article V. And Sabato knows that Congress has never passed any law that in any way expands or re-interprets that single requirement that two-thirds of states ask for a convention, upon which Congress “shall” call a convention. It certainly would help the nation if Sabato would talk more about all of these circumstances than merely focus on a large set of contentious possible amendments which if a convention is never called will never come to pass.
Joel S. Hirschhorn can be reached through www.delusionaldemocracy.com.
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