Academic and Internet activist Lawrence Lessig has an idea that he thinks will help the United States fix the current bind that Congress is in: a convention called by State legislatures that would propose amendments to the Constitution.
Apparently, Article V of the Constitution can require Congress to call a convention if 34 state legislatures (out of 50) demand it, and any proposed amendment would then have to be ratified by both houses of 38 state legislatures.
Such a convention and amendments would enable “the people” to make changes to the way Congress currently operates, since Congress is clearly not in a good position to change itself. Lessig has set up a new site to sell this idea and try to pick up support and momentum: Call A Convention.org.
So, is this a good idea and does it have any chance of success? Well, as an outsider to the US who has been here now for three years and who follows US politics and political history but not in a professional capacity, this is my brief analysis:
1. Yes, Congress really is a mess. The endlessly heralded “special interests” do indeed distort democracy and that means alot of things that should get done do not get done. But to my amateur eyes I think the bigger issue is the accepted level of partisanship and the entrenched two-party system that makes it them-and-us in Washington. The only way of actually getting things done, it appears, is horsetrading. And I think it is this that most Americans view as corrupt.
Would a convention be in a position to fix that? I’m not sure. It may force Congress to adopt some changes. But as I understand it, the US Congress has functioned in pretty much the same way since its inception, although the truly mindless partisanship and the unpleasantness appears to have started with Clinton (Lanny Davis wrote an interesting book Scandal broadly about this).
In my wildest dreams, the incredible possibilities that the Internet has made available would be used to break up the two-party system and instead allow for focus on issues. But we’re not there yet – you have to wean an entire generation off the status quo first.
2. Hosting a convention and actually making amendments to the Constitution despite Congress sounds like a foolish pipe-dream. But I continue to be amazed at what the American people will do when roused. For a country that is so fiercely individually independent, there are two peculiar and persistent traits: people will buckle down under the rules; and they will band together and act with alarming speed if they feel that their country needs them to.
If this convention idea was raised in the UK, it wouldn’t stand a chance. But instead someone would run an alternative convention and that would get plenty of coverage and one of two ideas from it would trickle down through MPs into Parliament. In the US though – where people love a bold political move – it’s all too possible that this might happen.
Although one of the problems of course is that a huge number of Americans don’t really realise how their country is governed and don’t recognise that it is Congress that holds the power. The cult of the President is so high that it may be difficult to persuade people to get behind a convention. And of course it would be exceptionally difficult to make changes to the Constitution with the crazed, frothing-at-the-mouth media that the US suffers from at the moment.
But here is my biggest concern:
3. It all seems a little too much Lawrence Lessig. I have been following Change-Congress.org (which is now Fix Congress First.org) since it was set up by Lessig a few years ago. I’ve not been overwhelmed with what has come out of it. It all seems a little too angry and finger-pointy to me. Maybe that’s the way to rouse Americans, but it turned me off so I just watch passively out of interest.
This whole movement need to be that – a movement – before anything can begin to happen. And so far I’ve not seen much beyond Lessig himself. I mean I’m sure there are many supporters on email and the like but I’ve not had a single discussion with others in this country where they have raised Change Congress. It has none of the wave that everyone could feel when the Obama campaign started to rise – you couldn’t stop people talking about it.
So, yes, the graphics are great, the sentiment is good, the technology is there ready to be used, but where is the movement? Despite his best efforts to be open and collaborative I fear that Lessig – like most academics – is individualistic in his approach and doesn’t have the temperament or the skills to do what politicians can do: wow people and get them to follow them.
For Congress to change, you need an Obama-type who is willing to take an all-on-red gamble on his career by attacking the system itself. I’m not sure you’re going to find that for a long while.
So if I was to take a bet, I’d say that this Convention isn’t going anywhere in its current form. Although with enough support, it may be possible to create a powerful event that had a strong impact.
As happens so many times in large political movements, change comes on the next wave. So what comes from this drive, if it takes off, may set off something in the heads of the next generation who find a way to fix what is a pretty poor political setup at the moment in the US.