State Sen. Chris Kapenga is no James Madison.
Kapenga, R-Delafield, has sponsored a resolution calling for a U.S. constitutional convention. His dream is to bring together a bunch of new Founding Fathers who would adopt a balanced budget amendment. No longer would the federal government be allowed to run in the red.
If Kapenga's resolution were approved, Wisconsin would become the 30th state to request such a convention, bringing the nation perilously close to the 34 states needed to trigger it under the procedure outlined in Article V of the Constitution. (That tally includes 16 states that approved resolutions during a previous, failed attempt at a convention. Proponents count them, so we do here.)
We say "perilously" close because we agree with the broad range of critics — from the ACLU to the John Birch Society — who warn that such a convention would face little restraint. Once convened it could quickly steam out of control and alter our nation's founding document in ways that few intend or want.
Kapenga and others who favor the resolution say the convention would be limited to consideration of a balanced budget amendment.
Opponents say such limits have no enforcement mechanism. As Georgetown University professor David Super pointed out in a recent guest column, the last constitutional convention — way back in 1787 — "almost immediately disregarded its charge to merely propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation — and scrapped the Articles' ratification requirement as well."
While that turned out pretty well, Super notes that no one has authority to rein in a runaway convention. He asks the right question: "Given today's politics, who could be sure that nothing crazy would be successfully proposed, and quite possibly ratified?"
We understand, and share, concern about the federal debt. Under President Barrack Obama, the debt ballooned to $20 trillion — partly because of increased spending and decreased revenue during the Great Recession, but mostly because the federal government consistently refuses to bring revenue in line with spending. Americans appear to want more government than we are willing to pay for.
Getting the federal deficit under control and bringing down the long-term debt needs to be a priority. Unfortunately, debt reduction only seems to be an issue for Republicans when Democrats are in power — and never seems to be a priority for Democrats.
But taking on that action requires only political will and the kind of bipartisan cooperation demonstrated by the Bowles-Simpson plan — not an amendment and certainly not a constitutional convention. In other words, it requires congressional leaders to lead.
Thankfully, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, seems in no hurry to bring Kapenga's resolution to the Senate floor. He said senators need to get "up to speed on implications" of the resolution before deciding whether to consider it.
With so little precedent to guide the proceedings, a constitutional convention would be messy, unpredictable and dangerous. Instead of trying to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, Kapenga should concentrate his energy on lobbying his Republican friends in Congress to work on balancing revenue and spending.
This editorial appeared in the April 16 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, another Lee Enterprises publication.