The United States was called into being by a Continental Congress, which delegated Thomas Jefferson to draft a Declaration of Independence and then, courageously, embraced the radical document.
But the United States as we know it did not take shape until 11 years after the declaration, when delegates from the former British colonies that had attempted to govern themselves with a loose set of agreements—the Articles of Confederation—gathered at Philadelphia to establish a more serious framework for the American experiment.
The gathering, a constitutional convention, did not merely produce a document. it opened a rich national debate that remains, in many senses, unsettled to this day. The wrangling over our Constitution is not a bad thing. It is an indication of the extent to which we are all still engaged in the great work of nation building.
That work has not been easy. It has required a Civil War and movements for women’s suffrage, civil rights, voting rights and progressive reforms such as a directly-elected Senate to forge a more perfect union. And that work is unfinished.
The combination of bumbling and corruption that surrounded the appointment of U.S. senators to replace Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Ken Salazar in late 2008 and early 2009 provoked calls for amending the Constitution to assure that no one can sit in the Senate without being elected—as is the rule of for the House.
The recent Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case has led to a movement to amend the Constitution to clarify the intent of the founders so that activist courts cannot create the fantasy that corporations (including arms of foreign firms) have the same rights as U.S. citizens.
The Citizens United fiasco has, as well, inspired talk of convening a constitutional convention to address the broader challenges posed by the development of corporations so powerful that they can not only corrupt our democracy but control our media and collapse our economy.
The call for a constitutional convention is radical, in the best sense of the word—but, also, in a sense that frightens even some of my favorite small "d" democrats. The notion of throwing open the discussion about the character of the American experiment and its future direction is unsettling, especially to those who fear that less-nobly-inclined fellow citizens might be inclined to hijack the process.
Such fears have, for 223 years, prevented the United States from holding a second constitutional convention. But sometimes, "in the course of human events," it becomes necessary to act boldly. The United States has come close to calling that second convention—most recently in the late 1970s when more than two dozen state legislatures endorsed a move to hold a limited constitutional convention to write a balanced-budget amendment and force action upon it. (The move fell short because the movement failed to obtain calls from 34 state legislatures, as required by the Constitution.)
Despite the disinclination to hold a new constitutional convention at the federal level—at least up to this point—states around the country have regularly held conventions to rework their constitutions. Many states have done so repeatedly since they entered the union; indeed, a number of states have established timelines for regular review of whether to update their documents.
The churn of the current moment has inspired calls for constitutional conventions in states across the country, with serious consideration having been given to the notion in California, New York and Illinois, among other states.
One of the most interesting variations on this theme will play out Tuesday in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary for governor. Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Vietnam veteran, former legislator and twice-elected statewide official with a reputation for upsetting the big banks and political insiders, is bidding for governor on a platform build around a call for a constitutional convention to reform state government.
"I’m convinced we have to do radical things to (fix) how we operate and be more fiscally responsible," says Wagner, who would like to see a constitutional convention reduce the size of the state legislature so that it can operate more functionally, take politics out of the redistricting process, enact meaningful campaign finance reform and end no bid contract procurement.
Wagner argues that only a constitutional convention can get Pennsylvania focused on making needed reforms.
And he’s convinced some serious Pennsylvanians that he is right.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, the state’s largest newspaper has endorsed Wagner, describing him as the candidate who is "taking a focused, unbiased look at how Pennsylvania can do a better job…"
Philadelphia’s City Paper calls him a "coolly pragmatic" candidate with a "realistic" plan to achieve "sweeping changes to how Pennsylvania works on a fundamental level."
Unfortunately, the seriousness of Wagner’s call for reform has not endeared him to the big-money donors, who have steered their funding a candidate who is more likely to maintain the status quo, Allegheny County Executive Don Onorato.
Though Wagner has significant labor support, he can’t match Onorato’s money. And that may mean he will lose a race that also includes well-financed state Senator Anthony Williams and liberal former Congressman Joe Hoeffel.
But Wagner has stirred things up in Pennsylvania with a bold call for using a constitutional convention to get citizens involved in shaping real reforms.
He has been attacked by those who fear radical interventions.
But it should be noted that it was in a Pennsylvania city, Philadelphia no less, that a radical intervention was made in 1787—with some success.