Why a constitutional convention might be a good thing

People have given up on state government; they really have. They have lost faith and that’s when democracy goes south. Incredible numbers of people don’t know who their legislators are. They tell their children, “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” As a result, the people have no real way of holding their legislators accountable. Most of these elected officials can’t be voted out of office because of the money that self-serving people and special interest groups invest in their campaigns. It’s been documented over and over again. So, do we give up?

Every twenty years the people of New York get to vote on whether or not there should be a constitutional convention. If past constitutional conventions are important predictors of what to expect, the next one will be a colossal waste of money and time. The politicians who own the state legislature elect their friends and vassals and nothing really changes. So, I have spent a fair amount of time writing about why we shouldn’t waste the taxpayers’ time and money on a convention.

Yet, lately I have been having some writer’s remorse. A constitutional convention could be a great opportunity for real change in New York. I suspect that people are so fed up with the way state government is operated that they are ready for change. So, let me posit why a constitutional convention actually could be a good thing. The delegates will have the opportunity to really change the rules. Here are some of the changes that I’d love to see.

First of all, we should limit how long politicians can stay in office. Most political scientists will tell you that the concept of term limits is antithetical to democracy. The problem with that argument is that the system is currently so loaded that people just can’t lose. The roles of money and political deal making are so great and the present cast of characters is so entrenched that every one of them (excluding the women) will grow long gray beards before they are dispatched. So reluctantly I am in favor of term limits, something that an overwhelming number of people in the state will certainly endorse. If a constitutional convention could do just that it would be a great democratic advance.

Another essential would and should be initiative and referendum, in which voters could petition to get a bill on the ballot and then, if enough people sign, get to make the idea into law. They have it in Massachusetts, California and many other states, so why not here?

Those are just two ideas that would make a constitutional convention worth having. Since delegates are chosen to the convention, three per New York State Senate district, there would have to be a major effort to nominate and elect reform-minded people for the convention. Since these folks are paid legislative salaries, you had better believe that a whole bunch of political insiders will see the utility of running. It is not mere coincidence that the bosses of the two political parties in the New York legislature are against a constitutional convention. They are probably quaking in their boots over the idea that their oligarchies might be destroyed.

So, I end where I began. I will bet you that we will have a constitutional convention because people will hope that something good will come of it. But sadly, it’s unlikely that anything good will come out of the convention. Already hundreds of ideas, some of them truly wacko, are being advanced. If just a few good ideas were adopted, the people might actually vote for the product of a convention, something that is required. On the other hand, I’d love to see something good happen to restore the people’s faith in government and get it out of the hands of the bums.