Campaign money
Part 3: Constitutional convention
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last in a series

It's only happened once. A constitutional convention. But it's now time for another.

The purpose would be to propose a constitutional amendment to provide public funding for elections to federal offices, to strictly and severely limit private campaign contributions to candidates, and to end the unlimited independent electioneering by corporations and wealthy individuals enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The larger goal is to eliminate the corrupting influence of today's campaign donors and their lobbyists who call the shots in Washington, D.C.

Something like the draft amendment put forward by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig would do the job. (See the prior two editorials in this series for more details.)

Many reasonable people will immediately recoil from the idea of a constitutional convention. It would be dangerous, they will say. A rogue convention could gut the nation's founding document or propose all sorts of radical changes: repeal of the First or Second Amendments; end habeas corpus for noncitizens; outlaw the right to abortion; require socialized medicine.

After all, the original constitutional convention exceeded its mandate to amend the Articles of Confederation. The Founders threw them out and proposed the Constitution instead. But the convention of 1787 only proposed the new Constitution. It did not presume to enact it. Rather, it presented the document to the states for ratification.

The same would occur with a new constitutional convention. It could only propose amendments. And because the Constitution sets a very high barrier to ratification — 38 states would have to ratify any proposal for it to be successful — there is an automatic safeguard against radical ideas. Remember, just one legislative house in each of 13 states could stop a proposed amendment cold.

In addition, Lessig argues that the states could limit a convention's agenda by their resolutions calling for such a convention. It takes resolutions of two-thirds of the states — or 34 — to call a convention. What's more, Lessig argues that the Constitution gives Congress power to call a convention and provide an orderly procedure for running one. Sen. Orrin Hatch sponsored a bill in 1989 that is an excellent template for such legislation, according to Lessig.

A convention is a long shot. But given the current power of corporations and lobbyists to run the federal government through campaign donations, it's a shot worth taking.