Thursday, April 19, 2007

Push for PA Constitutional Convention Premature

Agree wholeheartedly, wait the normal route out for reforms.

A limited convention is in the eye of the beholder...

Exactly, what is one's limitation, is another's opportunity.

Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial
Posted on Mon, Apr. 16, 2007
A Constitutional Convention?Give the legislature a shot
The push in Pennsylvania to hold a constitutional convention, a rare and drastic device for reforming state government, is premature.
A state Senate committee has been gathering testimony around the state, including at a hearing in Philadelphia last week, on the possibility of holding a convention with as many as 150 citizen-delegates.

These elected delegates would consider amending the state constitution to, for example, cut the size of the legislature, impose term limits on legislators, or to allow "initiative and referendum" ballot questions in Pennsylvania (much like Propositions A through Z for which California has become so notorious).

Calls for this grassroots revolution grew louder after the legislature's scandalously self-serving pay-raise vote in July 2005. Neither the subsequent repeal of the pay raise, nor the election last November of 54 new legislators, has derailed the idea of a convention.

"There is a disconnect between the people of Pennsylvania and their government," said state Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), chairman of the state government committee.

Not so fast. This step is not necessary, at least not yet.

The years-long process of organizing a constitutional convention could very well end up covering some of the same ground of reform that the legislature is now plowing.

A bipartisan panel appointed by Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) already has enacted some rules to make the House more open and less vulnerable to the whims of party leaders. Having completed those "inside baseball" changes, the speaker's commission is now turning to reforms that the public should appreciate more.

The panel will hold three hearings, beginning Thursday, on term limits, campaign finance limits, the size of the legislature and the state's open-records law. Some of these topics, if they turn into proposals, would take the form of amendments to the state constitution.

The panel will meet in Philadelphia at 9 a.m. April 26, in Room 202 of the Convention Center. Anyone who can't attend is invited to send suggestions to

This House commission, co-chaired by Reps. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery) and David Steil (R., Bucks) has been diligent and has stuck to its promised schedule. It has accomplished a considerable amount since January. Last week, the panel approved a plan to select half the members of the House Ethics Committee randomly, rather than having them chosen by party leaders.

It's more proof that the spirit of change, ushered in by voters last fall, is still active inside the Capitol. That process should be allowed to play out for a few more months.

"A constitutional convention should wait until we give this legislature an opportunity to do its work," Shapiro said. He's right.

Critics of allowing the legislature to propose amendments to the constitution say it's a time-consuming procedure. A proposed amendment on term limits, for example, would need to be approved in two successive legislative sessions. The earliest it could come before voters would be November 2009.

But a constitutional convention is not exactly a swift vehicle of reform, either. Piccola said if the legislation that he is drafting gets approved without delay, the earliest a convention could be held would be January 2009.

Another potential pitfall with a convention is its scope. Piccola envisions a gathering in which hot-button issues such as gun control, abortion and the death penalty would be off-limits. But his committee vice chairman, Sen. Michael Folmer (R., Lebanon), said a constitutional convention was the only way to address "pressing issues," including "tort reform," a perennial target of conservatives.

A limited convention is in the eye of the beholder.

"It's an expensive, long, drawn-out and uncertain process," said Robert Williams, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Law in Camden. "Be careful what you wish for."

Before committing the state to this extraordinary step, let's see whether a reinvigorated legislature can achieve the needed results...


Russ Diamond said...

Letter I sent to the Inquirer, but I'm sure they won't print:


I was surprised at the dichotomy of two recent Inquirer editorials published within four days of each other. The first dealt with the Philadelphia referendum on slot parlor locations and the second addressed the question of a constitutional convention.

Regarding the slots referendum, the editorial board expressed righteous indignation toward state officials for their attempt to suppress the will of the people on the locations of slots parlors within the city.

“Let the people vote,” the piece concluded. I agree, and apparently so do the people of Philadelphia and their duly elected City Council members. But on the question of a constitutional convention, the editorial board said, “give the legislature a shot.”

The legislature has had its shot. In fact, on the slots issue, all branches of state government have had their shot and have illustrated exactly why a convention is in order at this time. Every step of the way on slots, state officials have shown nothing but constant contempt for the will of the people of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth.

In adopting the slots bill in July 2004, every single legislator who voted “yes” showed contempt for the ultimate will of the people by violating the clearly written provisions of Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution regarding the legislative process.

The Governor, a former mayor of the city, underwrote that contempt by signing the bill. The Supreme Court, despite the plain language of the Constitution, cemented the contempt through a unanimous decision to uphold the slots law in 2005. (Shortly thereafter, the legislature created the pay raise fiasco by using the same broken legislative procedure supported in the Court’s decision.)

Now, on the Philadelphia referendum issue, the Gaming Board - all of whom are gubernatorial or legislative appointees - and the Supreme Court are quashing the will of the people once again.

While a constitutional convention would not help the current referendum situation in Philadelphia, it could very well prevent similar examples of tyranny in the future. It could propose mandatory statewide or local referenda on major new initiatives such as slots, either before they are debated in Harrisburg or after, to secure the affirmation of the people. It could propose specific sanctions for legislators, governors and justices who violate their oaths to abide by the Constitution.

To suggest that governmental institutions - which at every turn have demonstrated utter contempt for the will of the people on the slots issue - should figure out the ways to alter the ultimate will of the people - our state Constitution - is mistaken.

The job of making internal rule changes belongs solely to the legislature. Statutory changes should be carried out through the normal legislative process as well, with input from constituents. But when it comes to altering the Constitution, the people - and only the people - should be fully in charge of reforming the shape of government.

Even through the regular amendment process, constitutional change is filtered through the subjective and insulated view of the very people who blessed us with the slots law and the pay raise. On the other hand, the voice of the people would be clearly heard at a convention without the interference of those who have turned public service into self service.

Give the legislature a shot? Sure, on internal and statutory reforms. But on constitutional change? No way. Let the people decide. After all, the document opens with “We the People,” not “We the Elected.”


Russ Diamond

Net the Truth Online said...

The PA Constitution is not at fault for the negligence and oath-breaking of our elected public officials.

It isn't the system or government institutions that did wrong - it's the men and women who were elected by a majority of the people who did wrong.

What is truly disturbing to me after following events from Day 1 back in July 2005(and before) is this:

From the very beginning, from that time, there was immediate, absolutely immediate, talk of calling a PA Constitutional Convention. Before the ink was dry on the paper containing Rendell's approval of the payraise, there were rumblings of a call for a PA Constitutional Convention meandering around.

It didn't matter for what, just hurry up and call one.

Simultaneously with the pressure to oust all incumbents was this driving force to "reform" the very foundation of our government by altering our Constitution.

The state legislators didn't follow the document that spells out clearly the unconstitutionality of taking salary increases in the same term in which the increase was passed.

It is they who should be accountable.

It isn't the system that made them do it - it was they who abrogated their duty to uphold and defend the PA Constitution.

Now you say in your piece a convention could very well prevent similar examples of tyranny in the future.

Again, you don't have a crystal ball as to what a convention will bring, or not bring.

On to this

Even through the regular amendment process, constitutional change is filtered through the subjective and insulated view of the very people who blessed us with the slots law and the pay raise. On the other hand, the voice of the people would be clearly heard at a convention without the interference of those who have turned public service into self service.

The voice of the people is already heard without need of a convention - again - the process is called elections. If you desire direct democracy by the people, Russ, why don't you just come out and say it?

Give the legislature a shot? Sure, on internal and statutory reforms. But on constitutional change? No way. Let the people decide. After all, the document opens with “We the People,” not “We the Elected.”

Now come on Russ, you can't have it both ways. If it's truly "we, the people," why would you want a "limited" convention with Article I and from what I've read, the uniformity of taxation clause, off the table?

Why have any "enabling act" crafted to attempt to constrain and prevent "the people" from full potential reform of government which according to you is basically an institutional enabler for despicable legislators' actions.

The call for a convention at the outset, long before the primary and general elections of 2006 to me smacked of opportunism.

For instance, were those who desired initiatives and referendums simply waiting in the wings for any glimmer of an opportunity to get the ball rolling on implementing that for PA?

From my observations, yes, they were waiting. Yet, as I've noted before, there is no great grassroots massive outcry for that. Voters did not overwhelmingly even go to the polls to vote in Primary election of 2006 - approximately only 25 percent statewide average turnout - and that was after the unprecedented publicity in print and across the Internet.

Yet, you and others would have the public believe there are enough regular citizens out here who are so well-informed that they are going to go into a convention situation and alter the PA Constitution to what - prevent the same voters from re-electing the SAME "political" PEOPLE TO OFFICE.

You can even have term limitations instituted, but really, even though the names and faces might change, it's the same "political party machine" behind the candidates who will replace the term-limited incumbents.

In other words it is the very people themselves who give themselves the kind of government they want.

It's the minds of the people that need to be influenced and altered, not the basic foundation of our state which is a republican form of government.

Russ Diamond said...

Why you believe I am shooting for direct democracy is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is because you are a slave to assumption rather than study. I suppose that is to be expected from a blog which dedicates space to those all-important American Idol results - that takes time away from studying.

I found all your arguments against a concon to be lacking in scholarship. Parhaps you did too, so now it's back to the original direct democracy charge.

I never claimed a popular outcry for a concon, you made that assumption, too. Only thing I ever mentioned was our PACleanSweep poll, which did show pretty heavy support among our subscribers.

Instead of pretending to particpate in a debate, let's just conclude by saying you'll oppose a concon no matter what, and I support one that you simply don't understand.

Cheers. On to 2008!

Net the Truth Online said...

I must say I am completely surprised at your response. Why charging you with desiring direct democracy (based on your expressed desire for citizens initiatives and referendum) brought on this kind of response will remain unanswered.

As far as the American Idol jab, I cited Sanjaya as an example of a 17-year old who has already learned to leave the bad behind, and presses on, taking the good from everything. I never watched one episode of the programming.

As far as "scholarship" I haven't assumed you have not read the material in at least the links I've provided. Maybe you just don't have time to address the content of Hoar's chapters which by my reading show a discussion of state convention processes and the "scholarly" doubt about limiting conventions which are considered legislative.

Nobody has yet provided irrefutable proof a limited convention will stay limited once the convention gets going.