Allow Me To Repeat Myself

File this one under “here we go again.”

Common Cause, the Brennan Center and other nonpartisan organizations are warning about the dangers of an effort to call a Constitutional Convention, purportedly to consider a “balanced budget amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.

A balanced budget amendment is a truly bad idea but a Constitutional Convention is an even worse idea, as constitutional interpreters as different as Harvard’s Lawrence Tribe Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and former Chief Justice Warren Burger  have  explained.

So what is all the fuss about?

As I wrote in 2014, lawmakers frustrated by their inability to change government policies of which they disapprove, and unable to amend the Constitution through the process that has given us all of the amendments we have, will periodically propose convening a Constitutional Convention.

Thus far, none of these efforts have yet succeeded—for which we should be very grateful.

Why do I say we should be grateful?

When activists clamor for wholesale changes or major revolutions in the status quo, they always assume that the changes that ultimately emerge will reflect their own preferences and worldviews. History suggests that’s a dangerous assumption.

As an alert from Common Cause and the Brennan Center recently warned,

The effort to call a constitutional convention to pass a balanced budget constitutional amendment is being led in part by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization consisting of corporations and conservative state legislators. Advocates of such a balanced budget amendment claim that 27 states already have passed such calls. A major effort is underway in 2016 to obtain the seven more states they believe they need to reach two-thirds of the states, the number required by the constitution to call a constitutional convention.

It isn’t just ALEC. A variety of proponents of systemic change—liberal and conservative—want the states to convene a Constitutional Convention under provisions of Article V of the Constitution. They usually insist that the convention could be limited in scope to just their pet change.

Constitutional scholars disagree. The great weight of authority makes it clear that once a Convention is called, anything and everything would be on the table.

But the risk isn’t simply that a Convention could rather easily be hijacked by people who disagree with the conveners about the nature and extent of needed changes. There is also a real danger in calling together a group of people and asking them to amend a document that few of them understand.

Anyone who thinks that the public officials who take an oath to uphold the Constitution have actually studied it and understand it–are in denial. What they might do inadvertently to the Constitution is anyone’s guess.

As a recent USA Today editorial put it,

This year’s presidential election has seen more than its share of bad ideas, including deporting 11 million people, bombing Syria and Iraq until the sand glows, and enacting massive tax cuts or equally massive spending hikes.

To these we can add another: Sen. Marco Rubio’s call for a constitutional convention to draft amendments to balance the federal budget and impose term limits on judges and members of Congress.

Rubio’s convention is an invitation to constitutional mayhem and, even if it went as planned, his proposals could further poison our politics and hobble American leaders at moments of crisis.

And that’s the best-case scenario.


  1. Please also allow me to repeat myself! Calling for a Constitutional Convention with the primary reason to pass a balanced budget amendment leads me to Citizens United which needs to be repealed to return this country to common sense elections on which this country WAS based. This would/could be a major stepping stone to resolve the 1% source of the current out-of-balance budgetary problems plaguing all of us. Privatization of the federal government is a near reality today. As always; it is FOLLOW THE MONEY!

    The February 8, 2016, issue of “The Nation” has an excellent article explaining the reasons they are backing “Bernie Sanders for President”. It also contains pros and cons regarding Hillary Clinton’s campaign; the pros are vital issues, reforms on Wall Street, defending Planned Parenthood, challenging the NRA and supporting trade unions. But the cons; not ruling out raising the Social Security retirement age, not supporting increased benefits for all, rejecting single-payer healthcare and not breaking up the big banks are vital financial issues which must be faced and dealt with and a Constitutional Amendment regarding balancing the federal budget will not be possible till these issues are resolved. Her pros and cons are all financial issues. She IS corporate American; and a major part of today’s problems. A Constitutional Amendment to balance the federal budget is a fantasy as long as corporate American rules all aspects of our lives.


  2. Who vets the attendees at the proposed convention? What are the necessary qualifications to be considered? How many attendees are required to make it meaningful? What is the political overlay for the convention? Who sets the agenda? Who’s in charge?

    I’m sure there are many more questions that would need to be addressed. These are just the obvious few that come to mind. I see a CC as an impossibility in terms of today’s political climate in the US – like everything else.

  3. Marco is not the brightest guy in the world and he’s become a dupe for many things. A large step towards oligarchy would be to bypass the Constitutionally prescribed route to law making and replace it with a small group making laws that stand for all time no
    matter the conditions.

    Think: how many families, corporations, countries or even churches operate for all time debt free? None that I know of. There’s a reason for that. Debt is an essential economic tool that when wisely used gives every institution essential flexibility in meeting needs. Cheney’s inability to manage the country’s affairs is on him not on the tool that bailed the country out of the hole that he dug.

    Sheila’s point that a Constitutional Convention is a fools errand is correct. A Constitutional Convention for the purpose of weakening government is doubly so.

  4. The Tea Party + a Constitutional Convention What could Possibly go wrong

  5. Making money is not the business of government. When Republicans last had an opportunity to pay down the national debt, they elected to give tax cuts instead. Debt only means something to Republicans when a Democrat is in the White House.

    To the Sanders supporters out there, imagine what the Republican marketing machine will do to Bernie, if he is the candidate. My greatest fear is Republican control of Congress and the White House.

  6. The perfected perfect storm: The angry, old white men who advocate self destructive policies kill off the Constitution and make this a Frankenstate before they die. The rest of the story: Canada experiences a great population boom of immigrants from the “United” States, which has suddenly become the most dangerous, rogue failed state, but it would certainly give new meaning to the term “exceptional” as applied to this country. End of that “grand experiment” and onto the next.

  7. Thanks for this Sheila!

    “Rubio’s convention is an invitation to constitutional mayhem and, even if it went as planned, his proposals could further poison our politics and hobble American leaders at moments of crisis.”

    First, the fact that Marco Rubio proposed this is more than enough of a reason not to do it. Secondly, aren’t we experiencing enough constitutional and political mayhem already in this country? Thirdly, anything recommended by ALEC should be immediately rejected both for the good of this country and for the rest of the world at large. ALEC is so odious itself in regard to the protection of democracy as we have traditionally known it that they should have a huge Fabreze air fresher facility located next to their headquarters to mitigate the stench inherent in anything that they do or propose.

  8. Well there is one hope given the Republicons propensity to cannibalize themselves, we probably will never see the Rubios, etc., getting far with this.

  9. The 1787 convention in Philadelphia was supposed to be limited to making changes to the Articles of Confederation. Seventy-three men were chosen to attend the convention as delegates. Eighteen of those 73 either refused to attend or failed to attend for other reasons. Patrick Henry refused to attend, saying he smelt a rat in Philadelphia—that the convention would scrap the Articles and draft a document that created a government with more centralized power. It would appear that few, if any, of the 55 delegates who attended the convention at one time or another, or the 39 who were present when the final vote was taken, or the 36 who voted for the Constitution (sans Bill of Rights) seriously suggested tweaking the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the delegates acted outside their charter. That is the only precedent we have for the scope of a convention. A constitutional convention would be a very bad idea.

  10. Various public opinion polls over the years have shown that a majority of Americans would disallow free speech for those with whom they disagree. A constitutional convention would be a very dangerous thing.

  11. I have more faith in those of 1789 than those likely to attack those likely to be at a new convention. The ammendment process is more cumbersome and reliable.

  12. Having just read “The Quartet’ by Joseph Ellis, I feel that it is a miracle that the United States exists with it’s current constitution. The four men who came together to unite the colonies were working with the same problems that we have today; treatment of blacks, fear of strong government, treatment of debt.

    It took the combined strengths of four unusual men, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay, to do it. I don’t currently see four such minds on the political scene. Its funny how we called them statesmen yet we rarely use those words today.

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