Convening a Constitutional Convention – Who and What would be at Risk?
Written by Rev. Matthew Schlake-Kruse, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin
Earlier this year, I attended a play whose premise surmised that since everything partisan and political seemed destined toward either gridlock or stalemate, a constitutional convention to start over from scratch in a new effort toward democracy was the proposed solution. At first, I thought it seemed like a good idea.
But after thinking more, engaging the political realities of our time, and stopping to consider the “least of these” among us, I’m not so sure calling for a Constitutional Convention—even one solely focused on a balanced budget—as Wisconsin legislators are proposing, is a good idea at all.
My concern is rooted around four primary questions: Who is calling for this action? Can a constitutional convention be controlled to focus on any one issue and if not, what else might change? What happens in extreme economic circumstances we cannot predict? What does a balanced budget amendment do to the least of these?
It is not clear to me who is calling our legislators—the elected officials elected to work on the behalf of all citizens and constituents—to ask for a balanced budget amendment. It may be that the average citizen is ultimately concerned about such issues; however, I feel we have more important issues in our state that are constantly being lifted up my members of my congregation, yet are not being addressed, including poverty and segregation, criminal justice reform, and clean water protection and remediation. One must stop and ponder the question: Who will benefit the most from this process? Where will Sin creep into the process and create more inequality? Who stands to lose the most? These are faithful political questions to which I have not heard deliberation or response from many elected leaders. The ELCA’s Social Statement on Economic Justice reminds us: “As a church we confess that we are in bondage to sin and submit too readily to the idols and injustices of economic life. We often rely on wealth and material goods more than God, and we close ourselves off from the needs of others. Too uncritically we accept assumptions, policies, and practices that do not serve the good of all.”
My greatest concern is what the consequences would be of changing the constitution to mandate a balanced federal budget. Would our state legislators, or even a referendum of state voters, be able to offer checks and balance to other parts of the Constitution that could be adjusted beyond a new balanced budget amendment? Would there be a chance more drastic social changes could be made to change precedent in favor of one party’s ideals or policies? These risks may not be worth it for our freedoms and rights as we know them.
While there are economic values supporting a balanced budget, words of my former wise ethics teacher are stuck in my head: “All budgets are moral documents.” As a Christian, as a faith leader, I see some value in limiting deficit spending; however, if this is the primary measure for a “successful” budget, what other values and important morals are being sacrificed? God forbid we reach a place of further economic downturn or depression, would the common good be sacrificed for the sake of a neutral-spending budget? While we cannot let fear have the last word, I am deeply concerned this might hamstring any future needs to spend beyond federal revenues for the sake of economic stimulation, job creation, or even infrastructure maintenance.
Lastly, in thinking about the long-term impact of this issue, I was reminded of the ELCA’s Social Statement on Church and Society, which states that “Christians need to be concerned for the methods and the content of public deliberation. They should be critical when groups of people are inadequately represented in political processes and decisions that affect their lives.”
Our state and federal leaders, regardless of political party, have shown us all too often that the needs of the neediest citizens and the social safety net will nearly always take a back seat to the desires of corporations, business leaders, and those who wield more power in any way. What items from a balanced budget get cut to reach a tax-neutral status? Will government spending on defense ever be spared for health care, or access to basic necessities, or low-income housing? History shows us that even the best-laid ideas are susceptible to the average American; on behalf of those already disenfranchised by our policies, I cannot advocate for support of a constitutional convention. The already limited support for the least of these among us is too vulnerable as it is now.
Please consider asking your legislators to vote against supporting a Constitutional Convention.