KELLY: An indecent proposal

The House of Delegates’ call for a constitutional convention is an empty gesture that is distracting legislators from more pressing issues

In Richmond, there seems to be an air of constitutional reform. This past week, the House of Delegates voted down a bill that would have petitioned Congress for a convention of the states, a forum in which delegates from each state would gather to propose constitutional amendments. The bill’s conspicuous lack of substance, however, demonstrates the imprudent approach that House Republicans have adopted towards the issue. The bill’s impracticality, moreover, may indicate political motives.

The bill faced an uphill struggle in the House, and would have almost certainly failed in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Even if the self-professed motives of House Republicans are accepted, their intentions are fraught with dangerous possibilities and belie a serious misunderstanding about the pressing issues in their own state.

A convention of the states has not been held since 1787 for a significant reason — quite simply, it is an inherently dangerous proposition. Naturally, a theoretical convention of the states would start as a means for proposing specific amendments; yet the convention, once assembled, may choose to adjust that aim. One must consider the realistic possibility that such a convention could lead to rewriting the Constitution altogether. Indeed, the Constitutional Convention itself began with the purpose of proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation.

The bill, which aimed in principle to “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit its power and limit the terms of office of its officials and members of Congress,” contains only one semi-concrete proposal: term limits. The bill’s vague, imprecise approach to reform could prove to be a serious risk in practice. Without a clear plan for reform established ahead of time, what is to limit the ultimate scope of the convention?

Reforming the Constitution through convention is a method that many have argued for — politics professor Larry Sabato has devoted an entire book to the subject — but such conventions, by their very nature, require detailed proposals for reform. The proposal put forward by Virginia legislators, in its brevity and imprecision, misjudged the difficulty of composing sound amendments. Indeed, vague composition has inhibited the effectiveness of many past amendments and has led to negative or unintended interpretations.

The proposal ignores the careful preparatory work that is needed to develop sound amendments. Ideally, it seems to me, constitutional amendment experts should be gathered in conventions to develop proposals in extensive consultation with the public. Such amendments should be explicitly tailored for reversing specific lines of precedent. For the Virginia legislature to make the drastic jump of proposing an Article V convention would ignore what should be an essential part of the reform process. The more sensible method, in my view, should be for constitutional experts chosen by the people to design the amendments; state representatives would retain the authority to approve the specific proposals. If consensus exists on such amendments, they may be proposed at a theoretical convention of the states. Broad amendments would have to be written in general language, the very sort of language that has led to the perceived problems that some House Republicans have disparaged. The absence of precision in their proposal indicates a lack of seriousness.

Regardless of individual desires for constitutional reform, now is no time for such action. With such issues as rising education costs, growing income inequality and nagging unemployment currently facing the state, the legislature may find that constitutional reform is not the best use of the public’s time. The Constitution may be in need of some reforms, but it is certainly not the direct source of Virginia’s various ills.

In statements in support of the bill, House Republicans emphasized a return to fiscal austerity and a reduction in the power of the federal government — familiar refrains indeed. With the 2014 elections approaching, partisan spirits are in the air once more. Republicans have sufficient reason to fear for their security in the Old Dominion following last year’s elections. Proposing a convention of the states seems like a sure-fire way for Virginia Republicans to galvanize support within their conservative base ahead of the 2014 elections.

Consider how utterly vacuous the proposal for a convention is. The fact that it lacks any serious chance of passing the Senate hints that it may be a political maneuver, meant to appeal to peoples’ passions, their adoration for the Founders and their frustration with Washington. Even so, to propose a convention without well-defined plans for amendment is a reckless decision at best.

The federal government, especially Congress and its bleak 13 percent approval rating, certainly make an easy political target. Proposing a convention may make lawmakers seem above the political fray; indeed, it may make them appear almost Jeffersonian at first glance. Yet the proposal’s various deficits indicated a lack of sincerity. Virginia must first set its own house in order. Nonetheless, the bill’s recent defeat in the House does not seem to have dissuaded its sponsor, who plans to reintroduce it at a later time.

Conor Kelly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published February 11, 2014 in Opinion

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