weather icon Clear

STEVE SEBELIUS: Don’t let our political fights end in a constitutional convention

Democrats have had a lot to worry about in 2020.

The fourth year of a Donald Trump administration. A lawsuit that could end up repealing the signature achievement of the last Democratic president, the Affordable Care Act. A third Trump appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But 2020 has never disappointed in one respect: its ability to show that things could always get worse. How about the idea of a constitutional convention that red states might use to enact permanent conservative reforms?

That’s what concerns former Democratic Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who spoke to a virtual audience at the William S. Boyd School of Law last week. Feingold says he thinks enough states might be ready to call a convention “in the not-to-distant future.”

If they do, it will be a first.

The Constitution has been amended 18 times since it was ratified in 1787, first with the 10-item Bill of Rights and then 17 more times, but always as a result of congressional action. Under Article 5, however, two-thirds of the states (34) can also call for a convention to propose amendments.

And if they did, Feingold said, there are no rules: The convention could decide what amendments to propose and how they may be considered and approved. (The only rule in Article 5 preserves the Great Compromise, stipulating that no state can be deprived of its two U.S. senators without that state’s consent.)

That means everything is on the table: a balanced budget amendment, term limits for members of Congress or the Supreme Court, a ban on abortion or gay rights or flag burning, even repealing the direct election of senators. Congress could not intervene, nor could the president. The only check on the process is the requirement that the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (38) adopt the proposed amendments.

For Democrats, it could be a nightmare.

It means that even if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected in November, and even if Democrats retain the majority in the House and even if they retake the Senate, and even if they pass legislation to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court and even if they pass legislation to expand voting rights, abortion rights or repeal unpopular court rulings such as Citizens United, a constitutional convention could undo all of those actions.

“I think there may be an attempt to seriously gut the Constitution,” Feingold told the Boyd audience. “Constitutional amendments are brought up when you can’t get things done through the normal route.”

And we all know how well the normal route has worked in the past 20 years or so.

Feingold noted most of the amendments (with the exception of Prohibition) have tended to be progressive reforms, but the weight of history has no more control of a constitutional convention than anything else. “Article 5, which some people consider the mega-provision of the Constitution” because of its ability to change fundamental rules and rights, Feingold said.

The truth is, contrary to popular belief, our rights don’t come from God; they come because Americans collectively said it was so and wrote it down in a pact that we’ve all agreed to follow. But that pact can be changed, and Article 5 is how.

Certainly, there are plenty of amendments Democrats would like to see added, such as campaign finance rules, or restrictions on gun rights, or enshrining abortion rights, equal rights for women or even a fundamental right to vote in the Constitution. They’d probably like to install policies to fight climate change, or clarify that the free exercise of religion doesn’t exempt anyone from the obligation to follow nondiscriminatory, generally applicable laws.

It’s this kind of open-ended, no-holds-barred power that prompted the late Justice Antonin Scalia to exclaim, “I certainly would not want a constitutional convention. Whoa! Who knows what would come out of it?”

The convention option has gained currency as the legislative branch has become more partisan, less willing to work across party lines and compromise on issues of controversy. As a result, more and more issues are resolved by the judicial branch.

Perhaps if more people of both parties could agree to work under the Constitution we have, to put aside political concerns once the election was over, and to compromise in an attempt to solve the real problems faced by real people, there’d be less consideration of nuclear options.

Hasn’t 2020 done enough already?

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0253.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Fearing slaughter of wild horses, lawmakers seek to halt adoption program

Outraged lawmakers are saying a wild horse adoption program should be halted and an investigation should be conducted following a report that some of the horses were sold to buyers and slaughtered for meat.

Nye County green-lights $7.45 million in energy upgrades through performance contract

Following three years of gearing up for a large-scale energy conservation project, Nye County has now entered into a performance contract with Siemens Industry, Inc. that aims to provide an array of upgrades and improvements intended to reduce energy costs.

Pahrump Music Festival declared a huge success

Whenever an organization ventures into putting on a new community event in Pahrump, the outcome of that new endeavor is always up in the air and it is nearly impossible to say just how things will turn out. However, for organizers of the Pahrump Music Festival, there was never any doubt that this event was going to draw a huge crowd and those expectations were borne out this past weekend.

Charity fundraiser set for Sunday

As stated on its social media site, the mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Las Vegas is to create and support programs that directly improve the health, education, and well-being of children in communities throughout the country.

Animal abuse suspect arrested in Nye County

A man traveling to Pahrump from Reno is facing an animal abuse charge following his arrest on Friday, June 4.

Pahrump Valley’s veterans honored at appreciation BBQ

The first weekend of June was a sweltering one, with high temperatures making venturing forth a bit of a daunting task but for many members of the local veteran community and their friends, family and supporters, the weather did not stop them from heading out on Saturday to enjoy a few hours of food, fun and camaraderie during the annual Veterans Appreciation Barbecue.

Most minor traffic violations decriminalized in Nevada

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak on Tuesday signed a bill into law that decriminalizes most minor traffic offenses , classifying them instead as civil infractions.

Bill introduced in Senate to boost tourism sector

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., introduced bipartisan legislation in June that supports the travel and tourism industry.

Accidental overdoses increase in Nevada

Accidental overdoses increased in double-digit percentages in the state through part of 2019 and 2020, according to data released by the state.