Watts: A New Generation’s Constitutional Perspective

June 11, 2014

By Tyler Watts, Ph.D.

Caesar had Brutus, Manning has Patriot fans and state Sen. David Long has Sheila Kennedy.

Ms. Kennedy, a law and public-policy professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, made comments over the weekend pooh-poohing Senator Long’s goal of restoring fiscal sanity to the federal government through a state-led constitutional amendment process.

Before we look at her argument, here is the background:

Congress, as spelled out in Article V of the U.S. Constitution, can propose constitutional changes by a two-thirds vote of each house. If Congress fails to act, however, the people who desire constitutional reform, the states themselves, by a two-thirds majority (34 states), can call a convention for proposing amendments, which then must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Twenty-four of the required 34 states have called for the overwhelmingly popular basic fiscal reform of a federal balanced-budget amendment. Thanks to Senator Long and other state legislators across the country, the nation is well on its way to what might become the most significant fiscal reform in American history. (For a detailed analysis, see my “A Constitutional Moment,” pp. 2-9 in the summer Indiana Policy Review.)

So, what is Sheila Kennedy’s beef with Senator Long? She argues that such a convention would be unconstrained in its scope and could morph into a runaway convention, one controlled by special interests that could radically alter our constitutional structure.

It is a tired argument, and Kennedy tips her hand when she misleadingly refers to the Article V process as a “constitutional convention.” The appropriate term is a “convention for proposing amendments.” It would almost certainly be limited to the drafting and proposal of a single amendment such as that federal balanced-budget amendment.

A law professor should know this, thus the bulk of the argument rests on Kennedy’s claim — get this — that Americans are too stupid to understand our Constitution, and therefore it is too dangerous to amend.

Wow, what a slap in the face to those legal scholars who see Article V as a constitutional safety valve, wisely added to the Constitution by framers who realized that Congress might become so dysfunctional and hidebound that it would not reform itself, especially when it comes to seeking treatment for a spending addiction.

Indeed, you can think of the Article V balanced-budget amendment process as an intervention, and leaders like David Long as the concerned relatives who are not going to let Uncle Sam drink himself to death.

The move toward the Article V process stems from a broad realization that Congress and the president, with short-term election-cycle mindsets, have grown comfortable with permanent deficits and ceaseless debt accumulation. At the same time, they have become masters of the electoral game of buying off key voting and lobbying constituencies with increasing doses of “other people’s money.”

So when Kennedy professes fear that an Article V convention might be “hijacked by special interests,” you should wonder if she’s been living in a cave. Has she seen the interest-group dynamics on display in the current legislative process? From the GM and Chrysler bailouts to Solyndra to farm subsidies to Obamacare, Washington D.C. is a parade of special interests getting their way at the expense of the general welfare.

Kennedy goes on to say that we already have a process for reform — elections. “Just throw the bums out” is her simplistic advice.

OK, let me get this straight: Americans are too stupid to understand our constitution (as Kennedy documents from her experience as a civics educator) but somehow come election day we magically become smart enough to elect the right people?

Give me a break. Kennedy would not propose a constitutional amendment aimed at imposing fiscal discipline on Washington because the average person is deficient civically. Instead, she would rely on those same civic deficients to send the right people to Washington to fix the problem that the prevailing interests there don’t want fixed.

Again, Senator Long and hundreds of other informed and civic-minded leaders have another idea: Let’s use a constitutional provision created for just this moment: a state-led convention for proposing amendments with the sole purpose of ending the deficits, reining in the debt and preserving our economic prosperity into the future.

If one recognizes that our current problem arises mainly from a systemically overspending federal government, one understands that the solution must also be systemic — i.e., a change in the underlying rules by which the system operates. That in a sentence is what Article V is about.

I sense that Sheila Kennedy is someone who, although talking about the dangers of deficits and debts placing a “burden on our children and grandchildren,” is comfortable with her little slice of state largesse. It is not surprising that she is reluctant to change the status quo.

On the other hand, I am one of those children whom Kennedy professes to care so much about. I say this to her generation, the one responsible for the mess of entitlement spending and crony capitalism: Bring on the radical constitutional change. It is our last, best hope for halting the crazy train of reckless government spending before it wrecks our economy and my economic future.

Tyler Watts, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation for the past five years, is director of the Free Market Institute at East Texas Baptist University. A graduate of Hillsdale College, he earned his doctorate from George Mason University.

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