Washington — the Founding Fathers put it into the Constitution that hot summer in Philadelphia but we have never used it. It's a simple little charge of dynamite in Article V the pertinent part of which I now quote:
"The congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary . . . on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which . . . shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by th Legislatures of three fourths of the several States. . ."
All right, then, it's the law. But the last time this country held a constitutional convention was in 1787. Our remarkably brief Constitution has been amended only 26 times. By contrast, the convention has been the major means of amending a constitution for a state: since 1787 there have been more than 229 state constitutional conventions. (Average age of a state constitution -- 90 years; average length -- three times as long as the US Constitution. Louisiana has had 12 constitutions since 1812; Georgia's Constitution has over 650 amendments.)
Very well then, how about a nice little constitutional convention this summer in Philadelphia to liven things up? Nearly everybody has some pet improvement for the venerable document, the oldest continuous instrument of federal government on Earth.
The funny thing is that there could be such a convention. It has been looming over America for a number of years. The American Enterprise Institute held a conference on it in May, 1979; the chair noted that by some counts as many as 30 of the required 34 states had already petitioned Congress to call such a convention -- a convention to deal with the problem of federal deficits. deficits indeed, have grown worse since then. President Reagan is now dramatically trying to end a generation of living beyond our means. speaking at the conference two years ago Dr. Arthur F. Burns, Nestor of the economic establishment, declared, "Our country is now involved in an inflationary spiral that is being fed by an inflationary psychology." (That was under President Carter, remember.) He said, "I am inclined to recommend that the Congress move toward a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget but that this be done on a step-by-step basis."
Sof Missouri and Washington are close to petitioning congress for the same objective changes in the Constitution requiring a balanced budget. Some 30 other state legislatures, in one form or another, have already passed such petitions.The number required is 34. That convention this summer in Philadelphia? It's not so preposterous as it looks.
And yet, hold on a minute. Are these petitions valid? Can the states take the initiative in amending the Constitution and at the same time try to limit the subsequent "convention" to one subject and one subject only? Is not the very effort to limit a reason for throwing out the petition? Nobody knows.
Former Sen. Sam Ervin, of Watergate fame, in 1971 and again in 1973, tried to spell out in law the procedures for calling a convention; he saw the problem coming. His bill passed only the Senate. It would have answered some of the current questions. Personally, I would not like to see a rigid mandatory requirement to balance the budget written into the constitution. a convention? Ah, that's another story! Probably because I'm a Washington reporter and have covered all those political conventions, I should like to watch a constitutional convention. It's selfish maybe; but what would the mood be: grave and majestic? Would the shade of George Washington be there; Benjamin Franklin; Nicholas Gilman of New Hampshire? I missed that first 1787 convention. A reporte r can dream, can't he?