Dear Editor: So Wisconsin, thanks to the rolling over of the Republican-controlled Legislature, has become the 28th of the 34 states needed to call America’s second constitutional convention to rewrite our fundamental governing document, which includes the Bill of Rights.
Citizens who recognize this for the potential catastrophe it is have been tut-tutted with assurances that (1) the convention’s remit is only “for the limited purpose of requiring the federal government to operate under a balanced budget” and (2) the fail-safe backstop for a runaway convention is that anything it comes up with would still have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states (38 of the 50).
Those are false assurances, as evidenced by what happened at our first Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the adoption of our current Constitution in 1787, America was governed under the Articles of Confederation, which provided for a weak, underfunded central government. Under the Articles of Confederation's provisions, it could itself be amended only by unanimous consent of the 13 states.
Leaders who favored a more robust federal government arranged for a Constitutional Convention to convene in 1787 to amend the articles. But that convention didn’t simply propose with a few minor revisions, it came up with a brand-new document to completely replace the Articles of Confederation, and they specified within that new document that it would go into effect if adopted by only two-thirds of the states (nine of the 13).
Those are the precedents that would serve as guidelines (if any) for a second constitutional convention, namely: “It’s OK to ignore the rules of the game if your whole purpose is to rewrite them anyway.”
For those seeking solace in the requirement that three-fourths of the states still need to ratify anything, note that, as of 2017, in 25 of the 50 states both houses of the legislature plus the governorship are in GOP hands. There’s nothing to prevent a new constitutional convention (which would be dominated by the delegates from those states) from saying that a simple majority is sufficient to ratify. After all, lowering the bar is the example set by George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and the other 35 delegates to our original ConCon.
Richard S. Russell
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