Viewpoint: Conventional Objections


Whenever the phrase "constitutional convention" is uttered in Washington, the reaction is about what one would expect to a query about an outdoor privy at a garden party. "Yuk. You don't mean it? Not a constitutional convention."

One expects as much from Lane Kirkland, Tip O'Neill, or the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, whoever he may be. One would like to expect better of George Will. Will, after all, is supposed to be a political columnist who can think. His sentences are sentences, by golly, and he has committed to memory at least a third of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Where the constitutional convention issue is concerned, however, I have come to believe that Will's imagination is engrossed, not by fine literary allusion, but by the refrain from an old rock tune. "Run run run runaway" seems to be dancing in his head.

Several times over this past year Will has written columns for the Washington Post raising alarms about the prospect of a constitutional convention. The silliest of these appeared on May 21. It inspired me to wonder why the adjective runaway and the noun convention have come to be coupled together automatically, like an epithet in ancient poetry. The Greeks always described Hermes as "the slayer of Argos," but they had good reason. Hermes was "the slayer of Argos." Less poetically, newsmen today always describe the House Ways and Means Committee as "powerful." That, too, is understandable. The Ways and Means Committee is "powerful." But why is Will trying to stick us with this dopey cliché, "runaway convention"?

To speak of a "runaway truck" makes sense. A "runaway horse," it is understood, tosses you on your duff or gives you saddle sores. Runaway has a different, though still comprehensible, meaning when applied to "child." But what would a "runaway convention" be? A group of drunken Shriners breaking up furniture and cutting paper dolls out of the Bill of Rights? Would the delegates seek to ban air traffic over southern California? Would they demand free parking privileges for themselves at national parks? Deprive redheads of the right to vote? Make Swedish the official language?

The more attentively one considers the possibility of a "runaway convention," the sillier the notion becomes. Put simply, a convention would have no power to "run" anywhere because it could not change so much as a comma of our present Constitution. All a convention could do would be to propose amendments. Those of us who have advocated a convention to reform federal fiscal policy have argued that such an assembly could not go beyond its call to propose other amendments. This is not a unique nor a partisan view. A task force of the American Bar Association, including the dean of the Harvard Law School, came to the same conclusion after a comprehensive study.

For the sake of argument, however, let's suppose that Will is right and we are wrong. Suppose a convention did decide to propose another amendment. Or many amendments. So what? Those proposals would mean nothing unless the legislatures of 38 states ratified them.

Put another way, if there are even 13 state legislatures in the United States that would not repeal the Bill of Rights or do some other unmentionable thing, then the danger of a "runaway convention" is nil. For Will to argue otherwise is to indict the legislatures of 38 states and the mass of the American voters who elect them.

In short, the alarmists prove too much. If it is true, as Will and others charge, that the people may be expected to elect fools to a constitutional convention and then elect thousands of other fools to ratify folly in state legislatures, then any danger from a convention could hardly matter anyway. The situation is already hopeless.

Another puzzle occurs to me. Why is Will opposed to a constitutional convention but not to Congress? Congress has all the powers that a convention might abuse and many more besides. We are now living through our 97th Congress. Each and every past Congress was, in essence, an unlimited constitutional convention. Unbound by any state resolutions defining its agenda, any Congress could propose any amendment at any time.

If a convention frightens you, then you should stagger at the thought of having a Congress in session. In addition to its power to propose amendments, Congress can write laws. A convention could not. Congress ratifies treaties; a convention could not. Congress approves appointments; a convention could not. Congress raises taxes, raises taxes, and raises taxes. Congress creates public debt. Congress can declare war. A convention could do none of those things.

In short, it should be obvious to any thinking citizen that a constitutional convention has only a bare fraction of the power that has been routinely entrusted to Congress. Why the delegates would be more dangerous, absent huge staffs, the retention of at least 2.5 percent of their pension regardless of early retirement or job transfer, and the possibility of reelection, is something that Will has not made clear.

For Will or anyone to compare the convening of a constitutional convention with being "drawn into a black hole in space" is nonsense. It converts political theory into "political astronomy," that time-honored discipline that was first brought to public attention by Chicken Little.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union. His most recent book is The Squeeze.