The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable example of resilience. Changed an average of once a decade, the two-century old document has adapted to the times.
Or has it? Compromises on the slave trade pushed an inevitable conflict back until civil war was necessary. Millions had civil rights denied because of a lack of constitutional protections. Today, the argument has shifted to a federal government so liberated from constraints it regularly tyrannizes states and expands its already overstretched appetite for power. State legislatures get short shrift and engage in marginal politics because of their second-rate status under a dominant federal government. Into that fray enters a group seeking to engage in an exercise in democracy that might substantively change American politics.
The group, Convention of States, has developed unified language and presented it to 35 state governments for review and possible passage. To do so would trigger what is known as an Article V Convention, a national meeting to discuss possible revisions to the Constitution or even a replacement document. While similar efforts have been introduced twice before in American history, neither attempt met the threshold of 34 states to empanel a new Convention.
An Article V Convention could be tricky -- after all, there are reasons one has not been successfully called since 1787. The last time a convention revised a governing document, it presented an entirely new government. The Articles of Confederation needed replacement, of course. Today, there is no need for such drastic change but an imperative desire for significant adjustment. Writing a call that restricts the Convention from becoming a runaway is vital if possible, and the narrow language of the application to convention suggests the promoters of the movement have anticipated that possibility.
In the proposed convention, each state's legislature could send as many delegates as it wanted, but each state would receive only one vote. For states like Kansas, having the security of not being dominated by states with larger populations is significant.
There are important concerns to note. Many details, such as the selection process for delegates and the kinds of amendments that could be offered at the convention are not elaborated on, which would give the delegations freedom to consider a wide swath of issues and reform proposals. The process by which any proposed changes would be ratified is potentially problematic. The Constitution provides the option of three-fourths of state legislatures or three-fourths of public state conventions for ratification. The text of the convention call specifies state legislatures would have final approval for any changes, while a series of state conventions would involve the general public as a method of having true public buy-in. State conventions also would avoid a state legislative power play at the expense of the federal government's interests over that of the general public. Considering the lack of faith and engagement the public holds at the moment, though, keeping the populace out might be the most constructive design for the convention.
The issues brought up by convention proponents are as wide-ranging as the scope of the proposed convention itself. While issues like a federal Balanced Budget Amendment and restrictions on federal regulatory authority suggest a conservative bias behind the move, posts on the convention support website suggest liberal preferences such as reining in defense spending. The fact states like Democratic New Jersey have signed on along with more Republican states like North Dakota means there is mutual and bipartisan desire to open up the Constitution to a modern-day re-reading and interpretation. Could the states be resurgent under a new model of power sharing? Democratic reform might just be well-served by a revival of the Spirit of 1787.
Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.