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Long leading the charge for constitutional convention

– As lawmakers from 30 states gather in Indianapolis next week to hammer out possible rules for a first-ever constitutional convention, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, will be leading the charge.

But he says his support of states’ rights and fiscal responsibility on the federal level isn’t about shoring up conservative support or positioning himself for higher office.

“This is a passion I believe in,” he said. “I think people are looking around saying, ‘What can we do?’ They see this extremely troubling problem in Washington. Is there any answer? This is it.”

There are two ways to amend the U.S. Constitution. The first is for Congress to pass an amendment that is later ratified by three-fourths of the states. This is how all 27 amendments to the Constitution have passed. But Article V of the Constitution sets up another way – a constitutional convention.

Under this process, two-thirds – or 34 – of the state legislatures have to file a petition or application for a convention. But it has never happened in U.S. history. Any amendments proposed by a “con con” would still have to be ratified by three-fourths – or 38 – of the states.

Opponents worry that any such meeting would quickly get out of hand, turning into a runaway convention focusing on any manner of topics.

“If it turns into a general convention, it would become a conversation about gay marriage and campaign finance reform or gun rights,” said Jeffrey Malanson, assistant professor of history at IPFW. “A con con has never actually happened before so it’s fascinating. There is no precedent. No matter what scholars say, we have literally no idea how it would work.”

Long said 38 states would still have to ratify whatever comes out of a convention “so it seems extremely unlikely that anything crazy would ever get approved.”

Malanson said in the past, individual states have filed applications to Congress to call a convention but the current movement across state lines “is a level of organization we haven’t seen before.”

There appears to be momentum for a likely first topic – an amendment requiring the U.S government to have a balanced budget.

Malanson said 23 states currently have an active petition for a balanced budget constitutional convention, including Indiana. Some of the applications go back decades.

Five states have passed them just this year. The latest was Michigan, which some people considered to be the 34th state. But that is only if you count states that later withdrew or rescinded applications.

Long and other state legislative leaders last December set up the Mount Vernon Assembly – a meeting in Washington, D.C., of state legislators interested in a constitutional convention. Legislators from 30 states showed up to the meeting for a general discussion.

Two other pre-convention meetings are expected this year – the first June 12-13 at the Indiana Statehouse. Long said it is more formal and each state majority leader was asked to appoint delegates. Minority lawmakers also were included. Twenty states are sending official delegates and 10 more states have attendees. Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, is one of Indiana’s delegates.

“I was intrigued by the idea when I picked up that there were like-minded people in state government concerned about states’ rights,” he said.

The purpose of next week’s meeting is to start thinking about the rules that would govern a constitutional convention. How many delegates would each state have? Who would appoint them? What topics would be covered? Would all states have the same number of votes or would that depend on population?

“We need a process to avoid any sort of silliness or overreaching,” Smaltz said. “We need to come up with contemporary best practices for a constitutional convention.”

Long said another meeting of the assembly will be held to finalize those rules, possibly in December. He thinks if at least 26 states agree on the same general framework, it would discourage Congress from trying to control it.

Malanson said some experts believe if a con con were ever called, Congress would try to set the rules itself.

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, said many of the more conservative Republicans – including tea party groups – oppose a constitutional convention.

They fear a total rewrite would be on the table, including rights such as the Second Amendment.

So he is unsure what is motivating Long other than a true conviction that Washington is so dysfunctional this is the only way to change things.

“It helps him in terms of fundraising and gaining political capital within the fraternity of legislative bodies but not with Joe Schmo in Kokomo,” Downs said.

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said, “I don’t know what he’s doing other than not focusing on Indiana.”

He said Long is trying to convince people the constitutional convention can be conducted in a civil, structured way when he should be focusing on the wage gap in Indiana or the state’s lack of voting participation or the low per capita income.

“Why are they trying to subvert the congressional process? They don’t trust their own representatives?” Zody said.

“We shouldn’t overhaul the country’s most sacred document just because of current events.”

nkelly@jg.net

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