Saturday, May 23, 2009

Time for a Constitutional Convention?

In U.S. politics, anything could happen.

That seems to be the best argument anyone can make right now for the continued relevance of the Republican Party. Anything could happen, therefore the national Republican Party could pull itself together and go back to work.

The logic is absolutely unassailable. And yet, if anything could happen, there are quite a few other things that are far more likely than the Republican Party bouncing back. For example, the United States could give itself a whole new constitution.

I know that sounds extremely unlikely, but it is far more likely now than it has been at any point in my lifetime.

That’s because several prominent Republican leaders have been voicing dissatisfaction with some of the core principles written into the U.S. Constitution. For once, it is not the amendments they are unhappy about, but principles written into the original constitution 222 years ago. The Republican governor of Texas has loudly declared that his state may secede from the United States if some of these constitutional principles aren’t soon overturned, and he isn’t the only Republican talking about overturning the constitution. So far, I haven’t heard anyone call for a constitutional convention, but there is a movement in California to have one for that state, to fix its broken budget process. Elsewhere, constitutional conventions have been suggested this week in both the United Kingdom and the Philippines. Perhaps these are signs that constitution-writing is in the air.

Politically, it would have to be a Republican state legislature to start the call for a new constitutional convention. It could be meant as a sincere request or as a gesture of defiance; it scarcely matters. Then 33 more states would have to follow suit. If Republicans get the ball rolling, Democrats might well go along with it. After all, the current system heavily favors the Republicans, giving Democrats only a bare working majority in Washington, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1. For a decade, Republicans held a so-called “permanent majority” in spite of being regularly outnumbered and outvoted by Democratic voters. At a constitutional convention now, though, Democrats would dominate just by sheer numbers.

At a constitutional convention, basically anything goes. With few restrictions, it could throw out the old constitution and write a new one, provided that the changes are agreed to by 38 states. But the ratification process normally takes years. Supposing the deadline for ratification is 2020, it is quite possible that the new constitution could be ratified by Democratic states only. There could easily be 40 Democratic states by then. This prospect makes it far more likely that if a broad agreement can be formed at the convention, it can be ratified by the states.

None of this is likely, of course, simply because there isn’t any overarching problem that a constitutional convention could solve. But that too could change. So the next time you hear someone say that “anything could happen” in U.S. politics, remember that a constitutional convention is one of those things that could happen.