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Public Issue: Constitution and Rights in Jeopardy

A constitutional convention today could bring open season on rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Founding Fathers to be gutted by vested interests.

Individual freedoms endangered if a new constitutional convention is called. By Anton Selfe

In Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, he called for “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Jefferson’s words in 1801 illuminate why a movement to balance the federal budget became such a burning issue late in the 20th century.

Beginning in the 1970s, legislators concerned about the nation’s growing fiscal liabilities introduced measures in many states to hold a constitutional convention. The purpose was to be the crafting and passage of a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced budget.

Under Article V of the Constitution, to call a convention requires the agreement of two-thirds of the states. To date, 32 states have approved such a resolution. (While three of those later rescinded their approvals, the validity of a rescinded resolution is not settled and is a matter to be sorted out in the courts.)

This year, measures are pending in the Ohio and Wisconsin state legislatures that would add those states to the call for a convention. If these pass, and if the two-thirds needed to summon a convention becomes a reality, the consequences for the Constitution — and the United States — are chilling.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, one of many who regard a constitutional convention as a threat to the Constitution, suggested that Congress address the balanced budget by simply passing a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to balance the budget.

On January 27, 1995, a “balanced budget amendment” passed the House of Representatives. On March 2, the amendment fell short of the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate. Robert Dole, the primary Senate sponsor of the amendment, reversed his vote at the last minute when it became obvious it would not pass. Under Senate procedures, this allows him to reintroduce the amendment at a later date.

32 Unexploded Time Bombs

While the push for a constitutional convention has been focused on the balanced budget issue, the Constitution’s Article V does not require a constitutional convention to be limited to one issue.

Elliot Graham, founder of Constitutionalists United Against a Constitutional Convention, said that resolutions passed by the states calling for a convention are “32 unexploded time bombs.” If a constitutional convention were convened, the potential is enormous for open season on the Constitution.

Various new constitutions have been drafted through the years. The common denominator is that they curtail vital rights and liberties now accorded Americans under the Constitution.

Financed in part by the Rockefeller Foundation and first published in 1974, these examples from a “Constitution for the Newstates of America” illustrate the possibilities for abridgement of rights:

1. Freedom of Speech Article I-A, Section 1: “Freedom of expression shall not be abridged except in declared emergency.” Critics fear a “state of emergency” might then be declared for spurious reasons and that a minor civil disturbance or natural disaster might be used for the purpose of shutting down or restricting radio stations, television stations and other news media.

2. Arms Article I-B, Section 8: “[B]earing of arms shall be confined to the police, members of the armed forces, and those licensed under law.”

3. Jury Trial Article VIII states that the judge decides if there is to be a jury.

Under this proposed constitution, religious freedom, the cornerstone of our liberties, would become a privilege — something granted as a favor or benefit — as opposed to an inalienable right.

Clearly, a constitutional convention has the potential to provide an arena from which documents such as this could emerge, allowing rights and freedoms to be gutted by vested interests.

Multi-State Conference

Lacking the two-thirds majority to summon a convention, pro-convention activists have pushed for a multi-state conference in either Annapolis, Maryland, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 1786, Annapolis was the site of a conference of state representatives which preceded the nation’s first and only constitutional convention. The Constitution was forged in 1787 in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall by George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and 52 others.

Promoters have plans to pass resolutions for a “Conference of the States” involving 40 or more states. To date the measure has passed in 13 states.

The conference has been called ostensibly to address inequalities in the federal-state relationship. But during a debate on January 30 in the Colorado Senate, State Senator Charles Duke warned that delegates authorized to represent their states at the conference might try to declare themselves as a constitutional convention and then be legally empowered to proceed to alter the Constitution.

Said Senator Duke, “My concern is that this will absolutely be a steamroller. Do we have reason to fear what they might do to our Constitution? I suggest we do.”

He feared that the multi-state meeting could become “the biggest constitutional crisis this country has faced since its creation.”

To guard against the Conference of the States becoming a “rogue” constitutional convention, a Washington, D.C., constitutional expert advised that further resolutions passed by state legislatures should clearly state that delegates to the Conference of the States are not empowered to act as a constitutional convention. He urges that the states should specify that state representatives at the conference have no unilateral mandate to turn it into a constitutional convention. Colorado State Senator Jeff Wells added such a proviso to the Colorado conference resolution.

In late March in the Pennsylvania legislature, heavy opposition arose to a resolution calling for a Conference of the States concept. To try to salvage the measure, proponents introduced a provision proclaiming that “any attempt by the Conference of States ... to transform itself into a constitutional convention is unconstitutional, null and void.” Despite this, the measure died shortly thereafter.

Where might such a conference proceed without such protection?

As George Will once wrote, “[P]erhaps someone will explain who will play the demanding part of James Madison. Who will play Alexander Hamilton, who Benjamin Franklin?

I am not saying that in this nation of 230 million people there are not 55 people comparable in political wisdom to the 55 who were sent to Philadelphia by a nation of 3 million free souls. But I strongly doubt that today’s political processes would select such people for a convention.”

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