Rewriting the Constitution

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Over in Paris Jefferson complained that he didn't know what was going on. Even his friend Madison wouldn't write him. They lwere sworn to secrecy. Keep the press out. It was 200 years ago more or less (1787 to be exact), and in Philadelphia they were putting together a new constitution. Elbridge Gerry and George Mason weren't happy about certain details. So on July 23 the convention decided to provide some sort of amending process. One way was state-Congress ratification of modifying amendments. Then a second way was provided in Article V: that Congress "on he application of the legislatures of two-thirds of several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments." In other words -- a new constitutional convention.

That device has never been used.It is odd in a way; the individual states have called interminable state conventions, but it is too farreaching, too scary a process to be applied to the national charter. There have been a couple of movements for it, however. At the turn of the century a number of states petitioned Congress for an Article V convention to push popular election of senators (instead of selection by state legislatures). Recently there has been another movement: Why not a constitutional convention to enact laws requiring Congress to balance the budget?

Harvard Law School professor Paul M. Bator told a panel assembled by the American Enterprise Institute last year, "There is a very serious and profound call for addressing, at the constitutional level, the question of fiscal responsibility and the relationship between expenditures and income." Petitions for an Article V conventon have been coming in to Congress from state legislatures on the subject for years. Thirty-four states are needed. James J. Davidson of the National Taxpayers Union, which favors the idea, hopefully declares that petitions from 30 have already been received. By the end of 1981, he told the group, the full quota might be assembled.

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Examination of these petitions, however, shows they are ambiguous, diverse, and inconclusive. They were fired off to Congress from time to time on all sorts of subjects. If the total should actually reach 34 it is doubtful if Congress would act. It might, though, if an economic crisis developed; if people became enraged by inflation, recession, and high interest rates. "Our country is now involved in an inflationary spiral that is being fed by an inflationary psychology" celebrated economist Dr. Arthur Burns reminded the panel.

Louisiana has had 12 different constitutions since 1812. There have been lots of constitutional conventions -- all at state level. It's the major means of amending state constitutions -- 220 so far. There have been about 140 different state constitutions in 200 years. State constitutions last about 90 years. Georgia's has 650 amendments.

But a national convention is another matter.

The big fear is that it would run wild. It would not be composed of Washingtons, Ham-iltons, and Franklins. Technically it might be limited to one subject at the outset; but why should it stop with one -- it would be a paramount body, wouldn't it? Of course its work would have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states, but couldn't it change even that provision?

A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget sounds good, but is it just an unpractical short-cut; legislation requiring people to be good , like the prohibition amendment? Why not rather punish profligate politicians at the polls? Dr. Burns offered the group a much more cautious approach:

cI am inclined to recommend that the Congress move toward a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget," he said, "but that this be done on a step-by-step basis." He proposed spending restrictions, with new congressional committees to make annual reviews.

So the question remains unanswered: a new constitutional convention 200 years after Philadelphia? With some exceptions the group disapproved.Said one member: "It seems to be the sense of the panel that one cannot formally restrict a constitutional convention to the consideration of a single issue."

It seems likely that nobody will see the Article V convention provision of the constitution implemented in its first 200 years.

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