Thursday, May 11, 2006

How the States Can Help Pass Reform Amendments

Can the normal citizenry of the United States enact reforms on their own when those in power, in Congress and in the White House, fail to achieve such needed reforms themselves? Yes, but it will take work. It would entail using the state legislatures, the power at the local level, to do it. By getting the states to call for amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The Founders, when creating the Constitution, left the power to change that Constitution through the Amendment process (Article 5). There were two ways to propose an amendment: either two-thirds of both Houses of Congress proposed an Amendment; or two-thirds of state legislatures move to have a convention called to create an Amendment.

States do have that power, although there has never been an opportunity to achieve such a moment under the Constitution itself. Every time the states came close to meeting the limit, Congress took it upon themselves, out of fear, to pass that Amendment and prevent the states from calling that convention. The best example was when there was a reform push for direct election of Senators to replace the corrupt cronyist practice of having Senators indirectly placed through state governments (I know there seems a lot of irony involved in how that issue was resolved). The Senate had been blocking that reform for years, but when enough states came close to calling a convention for it, that amendment passed Congress and was later approved as the Seventeenth Amendment.

That fear Congress has for the state-nominated convention is legitimate, however, and I would be negligent if I ignored mentioning it. While having the states call such a Convention would circumvent a recalcitrant Congress (like the one we have now that refuses to consider legitimate political reform), it would also open up a Pandora's box in that such a Convention could do anything it wants and end up submitting a slew of unwanted and divisive amendments for ratification. It could even rewrite the whole Constitution and submit a new one. That's the big fear. Because it's happened before.

THIS Constitution came about because the original Articles of Confederation holding the U.S. together was failing: state powers were being abused, the federal powers were barely existing, there were no controls on business and commerce, or on taxation, or on a respect for law from state to state. So the states were talked into sending representatives to a Convention on the point of amending and fixing the existing Articles. The end results of that Convention was a brand new federated Constitution that noone (except for Hamilton and a few others) expected going into that gathering.

The big fear is that something like this would happen again: Even if the current government passed federal laws defining how any such state-formed convention would run itself, there would be no true guarantees that the convention would stick to an agenda. We could go in with a handful of reform amendments to fix elections and campaigning, and to fix lobbyists' access to politicans, but we could end up with a hundred amendments on every divisive issue from Abortion to School Prayer to Gay Marriage. The convention itself could collapse on such issues without resolving anything.

There are only two things that should encourage us to consider this as a route to genuine reform: One, that if enough states get close to push for this convention on a specific amendment platform (for example, creating an Amendment limiting campaign times to a single year rather than the current near-constant campaigning we have now), it could force Congress to pass their own version to avoid the potential disaster; and Two, that if there are enough people committed to genuine reform involved in this process, we could assure through consensus (a 'Gentleperson's Agreement') that the divisive issues be left to Congress and the decisive issues be handled in the Convention.

So then the question becomes, what can we as ordinary citizens do to get the states to consider these Amendment reform ideas?

More to follow...

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