Opinion: are constitutional conventions sacred?

Earlier this month, the Virginia General Assembly tried to invoke a sacred part of the Constitution.

So sacred, in fact, that it has never been successfully employed in the going on 228 years since the U.S. Constitution was written. Sponsors Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter and Ryan T. McDougle tried unsuccessfully to gain Virginia’s participation in a prospective replication of the very event that made America great: the Constitutional Convention.

As reported by The Roanoke Times, conservative members of the General Assembly made it clear that they would be supportive of holding a convention in order to reduce the power of a federal government they believe has overstepped its bounds.

The vote on Virginia’s potential participation failed, though, because more moderate and liberal members of the General Assembly did not believe a constitutional convention to be necessary at this time to revise our founding document.

Moderates and liberals may have soured on the proposal in part because of conservative amendment proposals offered by Michael Farris, a prominent supporter of Lingamfelter and McDougle’s efforts. Farris was the Republican nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 1993 and has offered amendment proposals to the General Assembly, including a balanced budget amendment, a redefinition of the general welfare clause and a redefinition of the commerce clause, The Roanoke Times reported.

Let us do a reality check on what we would need for this potential constitutional convention to actually occur. According to Article V of the U.S. Constitution, a convention would occur “on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states.” Currently, this number would be 34.

Then for an amendment to be adopted, three fourths of the states (38) would need to ratify a proposed amendment.

It is certainly fascinating that we have never invoked this provision that the founders expressly included for the purpose of revising their handiwork.

Simple logic points to the conclusion that if the founders did not want our founding document to be revised through the process, they would not have included it in the first place. Why then has the constitutional convention remained taboo? Are we too afraid of sullying the document created by our now mythic founding figures?

Although the groundswell for a potential convention currently has largely conservative roots, probably because our state legislatures are becoming largely Republican, perhaps we should become more open to a process that was intended to be fundamental to an evolving American government.

A convention could potentially alter our government in ways that Congress could not (or perhaps more accurately would not), at least without risking their re-election chances.

Additionally, even though conservatives would like to believe that the convention process would be safe for their favorite parts of the Constitution, no sections of the Constitution would be off-limits to change if a convention were to occur.

As Michael Paulsen, a professor at the University of St. Thomas law school in Minneapolis, stated, “There is no good theory under which the convention can be ‘limited’ to specific topics — far less to a specific proposed ‘text’.”

Just as our first convention became a runaway convention when the founders threw out the Articles of Confederation instead of simply amending them, a new convention would open up our Constitution to radical modernization.

The founding fathers certainly did not believe that we would put their initial document on a pedestal and worship it. They did not hesitate to modernize the Articles, and we should not hesitate to modernize the Constitution either.

Just look at our polling numbers: a paltry 17 percent of Americans currently approve of the job Congress is doing, and in 2014, Americans’ trust in government reached historically low polling levels.

Our system needs fundamental change, and a constitutional convention should not be taken off the table when we are considering how to fix our government.

-Henry Ashton ’15, Senior Politics/Opinions Editor

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