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Convention opens Constitution to mischief

Periodically, lawmakers who are frustrated by their inability to change government policies of which they disapprove will propose a shortcut: They’ll reform the system itself by convening a constitutional convention.

Fortunately, these efforts rarely succeed. To date, no such convention has been convened.

Why do I say “fortunately”? Because – like poison gas – system change is only a great weapon until the wind shifts.

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.

Indiana Sen. David Long wants the states to convene a constitutional convention under provisions of Article V that authorize such actions. (The second organizational meeting of Long’s group will be this Thursday and Friday in Indianapolis.) In response to people who warn that delegates could seize the opportunity to open the proverbial can of worms and drastically rewrite the national charter, he insists that the convention could be limited in scope. Even if he is correct in that assertion (and many constitutional scholars think otherwise – even originalist Rob Natelson, for example, says such a convention can be limited only by broad subject matter), the “limited goal” he describes is anything but.

Long wants the convention to devise “a framework for reining in overspending, overtaxing and over-regulating by the federal government and moving toward a less centralized federal government.” These are very general goals, susceptible to multiple interpretations and almost infinitely malleable.

Right now, for example, Wall Street bankers are protesting post-recession financial “overregulation” that seems eminently reasonable to most taxpayers, if polls are to be believed. Whose definition would prevail?

My definition of overspending might be the massive subsidies enjoyed by (very profitable) U.S. oil companies, while yours might be Medicare or Medicaid or farm subsidies. Many Americans think we spend too much on the military; others would target Pell grants or foreign aid.

“Less centralization” could justify virtually any limitation of federal government authority, from FDA regulation of food and drug quality to laws against discrimination.

In addition to genuine disagreements about such issues, well-financed special interests would undoubtedly see a constitutional convention as a golden opportunity to influence the process.

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.

At the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, we focus on the causes and consequences of what we’ve come to call America’s civic deficit. The data are depressing. Only 36 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of government. Only 21 percent of high school seniors can list two privileges that United States citizens have that noncitizens don’t. Fewer than a quarter of the nation’s 12th graders are proficient in civics. I could go on – and on.

I see evidence of our civic deficit in my Law and Policy classrooms. Even bright graduate students come with little or no knowledge of American history, episodic or intellectual. Most have never heard of the Enlightenment or John Locke. They certainly haven’t read Adam Smith.

A truly depressing percentage of undergraduates can’t explain what a government is, and they have no idea how ours operates. Separation of powers? Checks and balances? The counter-majoritarian purpose of the Bill of Rights? Blank stares.

To his credit, Long is one of the few Indiana legislators who recognizes the importance of civics education and who supports efforts to remedy the deficit. His efforts in this area are truly praiseworthy, which is why I find his willingness to turn over the task of rewriting our Constitution to people who don’t understand the one we have so puzzling.

Actually, the existing Constitution provides We the People with a remedy for unsatisfactory governance: it’s called elections. If we aren’t angry enough to use the electoral process to throw the bums out, there’s little reason to believe we are ready or able to improve upon the Constitution – and many good reasons to refrain from trying.

Sheila Suess Kennedy is professor of Law and Public Policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI and director of the Center for Civic Literacy. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Indianapolis Business Journal and blogs daily at www.sheilakennedy.net. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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