When someone opposes something that I love or believe in, I sometimes find that I want to react on the defensive. I may only have a partial understanding of what the other person is saying, but if I’m not careful, defending my side becomes more important than listening to theirs. In his classic work, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey said we should seek first to understand, then to be understood. I try to keep that in mind, as I think it is very good advice. If you speak with others about our Constitution, it won’t take long until you find yourself in a conversation with someone who says something like, “The Constitution was written a very long time ago. The challenges of society today are quite different than they could have ever known back then…” When I hear something like that, if I think about Mr. Covey’s advice, I realize they actually have a valid point. The world has changed much since the days of our founders.
I’m so offended
As an example, the Constitution specifically mentions the Army and Navy. It does not mention an Air Force… I am an Air Force veteran, but my branch of service doesn’t get mentioned! The reason for this may be related to the fact that Orville and Wilbur Wright’s flight didn’t happen until 1903! So, we need to remember to seek first to understand, then to be understood. So, really, the other person in our conversation is right – things are not the same as they were.
A different world
The challenges our nation faces are very different today than those she faced when George Washington took office as the first President under our new Constitution in April, 1789. The world is different, society is different, culture is, wow, so different. I am always amazed at the foresight of our founders. They built our nation to be able to adjust to changes they knew would become necessary. One of the areas where we see their foresight is in Article 5 of the Constitution. Article 5 is 143 words. In 143 words, the founders gave us not just one, but two methods for proposing amendments to our Constitution. These amendments, as needed, allow our Constitution to remain relevant as the world changes.
“The Constitution of any government which cannot be regularly amended when its defects are experienced, reduces the people to a dilemma – they must either submit to its oppressions, or bring about amendments, more or less, by a civil war…”– James Iredell, speaking at North Carolina’s ratification debate, later nominated Supreme Court Justice by George Washington, speaking about Article 5.
The two methods
The first method for proposing potential amendments to the Constitution given to us in Article 5 is by Congress. Two-thirds of both houses of Congress may propose an amendment. The second method for proposing amendments is a convention of states. When the legislatures of two-thirds of the states request a convention, then Congress must call a convention. The convention will be made up of representatives from each state. They will work together and propose potential new amendment(s) to our Constitution. It is important to note that regardless of which route is taken to propose an amendment, whether it is proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, or whether it is proposed by a convention of states, either way, the amendment has to go out to the states for ratification. The only way the amendment will become part of the Constitution is if it is ratified by three-fourths of the states.
That Sounds Hard
You might be thinking… “Wow, that sounds hard to do!” If you have ever followed things going on in Congress, you already know that getting two-thirds of BOTH houses to agree on anything is approaching impossibility. The only other option is to get the legislatures of two-thirds of the states to ask Congress to call a convention. That seems crazy hard to do as well! Then ON TOP of the very high bar posed by either of those two methods of proposing an amendment, it has to then be ratified by three-fourths of the states to become part of the Constitution. As you can see, this is no easy task. That is for good reason. We don’t want to be changing our federal Constitution for (to borrow a phrase from the Declaration) “light and transient causes”. These can’t be red or blue priorities they are trying to cram down each other’s throats. These have to be things the American people want – things they are willing to demand from their representatives in Congress, and from their State Legislatures. Think things like an amendment requiring a balanced budget, or term limits for members of Congress, or other restraints on federal government power.
As we consider things that might warrant a new Constitutional amendment, we have to think through which path might make the most sense as a strategy to get it done. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, was passed through the first session of Congress and was then ratified by the states on December 15, 1791. In fact, there are 27 amendments that have been made to the Constitution in the history of our nation. All 27 of these took the path of being proposed by Congress. When we think of potential new amendments, ones that would limit Congress with term limits, or restrict them to a balanced budget, it seems the route of a convention of states might be more feasible. When do you think two-thirds of both houses of Congress will vote to limit their own power? Probably will never happen… So, if we are to limit Congress, we need to encourage our state legislatures to call for a convention of states.
Covention of States
There is an organization working on making a convention like that happen. They are called Convention of States, or shortened to “COS”. In a future article, we will look at the work COS is doing and how we can plug into their work to call a convention for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution for a balanced budget, term limits, and other fiscal restraints on the federal government.
Seek to Understand
One thing I have noticed about discussing amendments to the constitution is that it brings out all kinds of reactions from folks, even in circles (or especially in circles) of people who love our Constitution and our form of government. When we find ourselves in these conversations, I think we can once again remember Mr. Covey’s advice. Let’s have respect for one another and hear the concerns. Let’s seek to understand the other position before trying to make them understand ours. It will be a fun conversation between people who love our country. I understand being hesitant to change our Constitution. Our founders certainly understood this as well because they set the bar very high to make any changes.
We need to limit our government
I will say that I truly believe we need to amend our Constitution. We need to place limits on our federal government – not to fundamentally change our form of government – but to “undo” unconstitutional changes that have been allowed to creep in over the years. We need to return to the original intent of our founders. Americans often erroneously view Supreme Court decisions as Constitutional amendments in themselves. Do you ever hear about the Supreme Court “legalizing” something? They have no jurisdiction to pass laws – that is an exclusive function of the Congress. We need to clear up things like that. Imagine if we were to call a convention of states, propose amendments to place new limits on the federal government for something like term limits for members of Congress, and ratify that amendment into the Constitution – all without ever requiring support or concurrence from Congress… can you imagine how that would change the political landscape of our country? Can you imagine how that would clearly demonstrate that “We the People” hold the power in this country? I think we need to do that.
What do you think?
What do you think? Do you think a convention of states would be a good thing? Why or why not? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Maybe we can have one of those conversations Mr. Covey says highly effective people have… thank you and I will talk with you soon.