Sunday, December 23, 2007

Nat'l Constitutional Convention?

Last night, I was watching Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS On Demand. Of particular interest was Sanford Levinson's discussion on Constitutional issues. Basically, he was arguing that the Constitution as currently structured isn't working for America and it needs to be updated. One of his central points was that we need occasional Constitutional Conventions if we ever want to be able to enact important changes. Now, I'm not sure if I agreed with all of his specifics, but here was the general gist of what a Constitutional Convention would mean:
  • ConCons could only recommend changes, not make them.
  • They'd could only occur once every 20 years.
  • Delegates would be given ample time and significant resources to craft any potential changes they viewed as necessary.
I've thought about the potential importance of Constitutional Conventions in the past - and was generally supportive. However, there was one reason I never seriously wrote on the subject: I was always rebuffed on the potential dangers - it a Pandora's Box of epic proportions. I didn't think it likely that huge sweeping changes would be made that could cripple civil rights and other important aspects of the Constitution. Yet, I couldn't be too sure on other aspects, such as citizens pushing for a clause that actually guarantees the right for people to have firearms, as opposed to a clause that only protects the right to state militias.

But after watching Bill Moyer's latest program, it's clear that a Constitutional Convention isn't ever going to become a Pandora's Box. After all, if all a Constitutional Convention could do was make suggestions, why would it be so dangerous? Even the original Constitutional Convention, which was exceptionally radical for the time, going well beyond its mandate, wasn't the final call. The Constitution still had to be ratified by a super-majority of the states, which was by no means an easy task. Several states almost defeated it. If not for the promise of the Bill of Rights being written just after the initial document was created, America would probably still be operating under the Articles of Confederation. Just like in 1787, We, the people, will have our final say in whether or not a Constitutional Convention's recommendations will ever be enacted.

All that said, a Constitutional Convention is the likeliest vehicle for any serious systematic reform. Consider the dual facts that the Legislative Branch is already too busy (and petty) to take up a cause as serious as this - as well as the fact that there'd be too many special interests to kill important reform in that body before it even came up for public debate. There just doesn't exist the political will to create serious changes on Capitol Hill. More importantly, a Constitutional Convention would be completely the opposite: delegates could create momentum for change and, given the fact that they'd only occur once every twenty years, there'd be lots of interest and drive in making sure we have the best Constitution possible. It would be an opportunity for both reflection and taking a national step into the future.

I don't agree with all of Levinson's proposals; he thought delegates should be chosen at random (like a jury) and there should be 700 of them meeting over two years. I think that's too many, for too long and comprised in a way that's anathema to American Democracy. While we agree that a Constitutional Convention should have well-compensated and dedicated delegates, solely working on analyzing the Constitution for a lengthy time, two years is too long to keep either public interest or momentum for change. A year would give ample time to research, take hearings, craft language, as well as present the conclusions to the public.

Furthermore, random selection would be entirely inappropriate - we need people on the job who would take it seriously and view the Constitution as exceptionally important. We need people who already have a working knowledge of the tome - and ideas for how it could be better. What better way to send delegates than to vote them in at the local levels? Given that a Constitutional Convention would only happen three or four times in an average lifetime, there'd be plenty of room for robust debate and lots of interest at the local level. Each congressional district should get one delegate, as well as two at-large, state-wide votes (the same number as each state's congressional delegation). I could also get behind a few delegates appointed by state delegations, governors and maybe even one for the President, but the number is quickly reaching Levinson's 700, which could make for a delegation that's too large to be effective. In any event, coming up with a specific number of delegates is far less important than agreeing that electing delegates makes far more sense than appointing 700 at random out of a hat with 300 million names.

There's little debate that the Constitution needs at least minor changes to be relevant today. Millions of people think the electoral college is not only outmoded, but offensive and elitist. Levinson brings up a more important point: the Electoral College also prevents issues that are important to the majority of Americans from ever being raised by candidates on the campaign trail. Why would a candidate for President care about gang violence, for example, when they don't have to worry about the cities where that violence is worst: few of this country's largest cities are in states traditionally competitive on election day. All that would change if Presidents were popularly elected - but how likely is that to happen without a Constitutional Convention? Whatever the constitutional concerns people have, there's no vehicle to drive important change. Be it changing the way either the Senate or Supreme Court work, or enacting more civil rights protections - the only way any of these things are likely to happen is if we have occasional Constitutional Conventions that could create a mandate for change, even without opening up any Pandora's Box. The question then becomes not "why should we have Constitutional Conventions," but "why not?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In case you're interested in reading more of Levinson's arguments, he blogs (along with a number of other very smart people) over at Balkinization.

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