James Gill: D.C. taking pointers from Legislature? Think again _lowres

Ray Garofalo

A federal constitutional convention could get out of hand, with delegates going way beyond their instructions, opponents of the latest move to call one point out.

That warning may have helped legislators last week decide that Louisiana would not join the campaign to make Washington mend its profligate ways. A Senate committee refused to adopt a resolution asking Congress to call this country’s second constitutional convention.

If you doubt that these are dangerous waters, look what happened the first time. That was in 1787, when delegates were tasked with revising the Articles of Confederation. They so far exceeded their mandate that we wound up with a whole new constitution. No wonder we haven’t had a convention since. The results last time have met with general approval, but another runaway convention could diminish our constitutional rights.

So goes the argument against another convention, at least, but such fears are clearly overblown. Any amendments proposed by a convention would still need the approval of “three fourths of the several States.” That should be enough to ensure that the crazies could not wreak havoc in the end, even if they managed to hijack the convention.

Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, author of the resolution asking for a convention, assured senators that delegates could be prevented from exceeding the terms of the call anyway, although not all legal scholars agree. When the 1787 delegates got to Article V, which sets out the procedure for amending the constitution, they declined to address the question.

It would be answered only if the U.S. ever did have another constitutional convention, and that seems highly unlikely. According to a paper on the Harvard website, “as of 1993, almost 400 convention applications had been submitted to Congress by the States since 1789.” Garofalo’s would no doubt have been just as futile.

The only method we have ever used to propose a constitutional amendment for ratification by the states is by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, but Article V also authorizes the states to weigh in. If two-thirds of them request a convention to consider amendments, Congress is obliged to call one. Although it has never happened, state legislators with a bee in their bonnet will evidently never stop trying.

The latest, and recurrent, cause is curbing the government extravagance that threatens to leave posterity in hock. A balanced federal budget is not unknown, but we haven’t had one since Bill Clinton left the presidency.

Garofalo’s resolution called for a convention to consider amendments that would “limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government,” impose term limits and require a balanced budget. Four other states have adopted similar resolutions, he said, so there are only 30 to go.

Clearly Congress is not going to propose an amendment that would not suit its own convenience. So, if Washington ever is to be constitutionally restrained from reckless spending, it’s a convention or nothing.

Although history says it’s nothing, the Harvard paper notes that the states have come close a few times to mustering the two- thirds vote. Indeed, the threat of a convention to consider requiring senators to be elected by the people appears to have persuaded Congress to propose the 17th Amendment off its own bat. Growing support for a convention also may have spurred Congress into repealing Prohibition. That’s reason enough right there to praise the 1787 delegates for Article V.

Almost enough states signed on for a convention to consider a balanced budget amendment when it was proposed almost 40 years ago. The Republican-controlled Senate was sufficiently spooked to approve such an amendment itself, but the Democratic House refused to budge. The drive then fizzled out amid the same fears of a runaway convention that helped derail Garofalo’s resolution.

The idea that the Louisiana Legislature might give Washington guidance in the art of government is too droll, especially as we already have term limits and a balanced budget requirement here. Just look at the good that has done us.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.