The pro and con sides of an unconventional Constitutional Convention controversy lined up, and in a balmy room at the UIC campus, they acted out a purely distilled version of a very old American debate: that between the progressive view of democracy, and a conservative view of democracy.
Organized by the UIC United chapter of the State Universities Annuitants Association (SUAA), a panel debated the pros and cons of the once-a-generation Constitutional Convention vote on Tuesday night. Representing pro were populist Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn and ethics crusader state Representative John Fritchey (D-Chicago); on the con side were former state Senator, comptroller, and gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch and League of Women Voters official Kathryn Nesburg. Over two hours of debate and question-and-answer led to a neat and simple line between the two sides:
Pro: If we have a constitutional convention, we could make things better.
Con: If we have a constitutional convention, we could make things worse.
Progressive and conservative in a more elevated sense — in terms of the basic view of human nature. Measured change from up top? Or dramatic change from below? Tradition or debate? Do we trust "the people"? Or do we fear "the mob?"
"I'm not scared of a constitutional convention. I'm not scared of my friends and neighbors," Rep. Fritchey said. Should he be?
When Illinois' framers (including one Dawn Clark Netsch) got together some 40 years ago to write the current constitution, they did so because Illinois' "horse-and-buggy" constitution, at that point a century old, was making it nearly impossible to effectively conduct the business of the state. To prevent that from happening again, they wisely inserted a clause that required voters in every generation to either request or refuse a new constitutional convention. This year, voters will see the question at the top of their ballot — should Illinois convene a constitutional convention?
If they say yes, the legislature will be forced to set a framework for an election of delegates, by state Senate district, to a convention in Springfield that would reopen the entire Illinois constitution for restructuring, rewriting, revising. Whatever these delegates come up with would then be put to the voters, who could either affirm or deny it.
Special interest groups of all stripes have arrayed against the "Con-Con," arguing that it would be a mess, that it would accomplish little, and that most importantly it would add to current gridlock as legislators waited to see the results (which could take years to finalize). The disinterested parties backing the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution — disinterested parties like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Manufacturers Association, the Illinois AFL-CIO, and the Farm Bureau — argue that if you want change in Springfield so bad, vote the bums out! They fret that a constitutional convention would lead to Illinois' sterling bill of rights being compromised by "single-issue" special interest groups.
Just to be clear, those special interest groups are arguing that a constitutional convention would be dominated by special interest groups.
Ms. Netsch echoed that concern at the debate on Tuesday, pointing out that currently Illinois has one of the best and most comprehensive bills of rights in the country, including an equal rights amendment. Opening the constitution up would potentially place that at risk. Furthermore, she argued, the "ballot initiative" process championed by populists tends to become an avenue for well-organized hot-button issue specialists, thus the flood of same-sex marriage and adoption, gun rights and abortion rights ballot questions that other states deal with constantly. The odds are, an open ballot initative process would hardly give voice to "the people" regarding process issues, but rather would create just another avenue for well-organized and well-financed special interests.
The con side takes an essentially pessimistic view of people: that given power, they are more likely to fumble than score. Ms. Nesburg followed with a powerful argument herself: that the problem with Illinois government is not the constitution, but the leadership. The failure of political leadership has no relationship to how legally and politically sound the Illinois Constitution, as written, is. The ballot box, in other words, is a more dexterous tool than the plebiscite.
That's a good argument, certainly better than the sloganeering being offered by the "Alliance" (though, with that roster of special interests, perhaps they should go by "the Empire" in this scenario), and one that should be seriously pondered over. Every time our political leadership fails us, should we go and re-write the constitution, recall the governor, whatever? Or should we be more responsible, deliberative — conservative — and strive for the incremental change that over long periods of time can lead to qualitative differences?
There is another practical argument against the Con-Con, enunciated by Netsch: that there simply has not been enough public education for a constitutional convention to go well. Natch.
Unfortunately, the opposition arguments beg themselves. All of Illinois' most powerful special interests — not a judgment, just a fact — take a break from fighting each other in lobbyist proxy wars to oppose a Constitutional Convention on the grounds that any such convention would be dominated by them themselves. That such thoughtful and brilliant fellow-travelers as Dawn Clark Netsch buy and repeat such an argument doesn't make it better, only more revealing: have we really lost our nerve that much?
Are we so resigned to the status quo that we think picking a fight isn't worth it? Are we so certain of "the people's" impotence that we don't even bother to challenge power any longer?
And, to paraphrase Fritchey, have we come to the point that we are afraid of our neighbors?
Or, could real democracy unleash the creative powers of the people of Illinois — "the people" who politicians are always so ready to praise in campaign language but in whom they apparently have little or no confidence?
Can the Illinois Chamber of Commerce really have the gall to advocate constantly for "free markets" on the belief that the marketplace of ideas and competition will lead to the best results, but then argue that an open political process would lead to domination by an oligarchy?
Can the largest institutions of the labor movement really argue that in this one instance, speaking truth to power will only result in power consolidating, so well enough should be left alone?
Coming from The Empire, arguing against a Con-Con because of the potential for special interests to dominate it doesn't sound like an argument at all, but rather a threat. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sit well with me.
Obviously, just the fact that special interests (and, again, even though the term "special interests" has a negative connotation, it is not inherently negative) oppose a Con-Con is not reason enough to turn around and support it, unless you're one of those annoying contrarians who pretends LPs sound better than digital music. Besides, those special interests probably know the constitution better than most of our sitting legislators, whose knowledge of it is very likely limited to the snippets they read in directives they get from the Speaker's office. Also, as I'm sure some readers will point out to me, I have spent considerable column space defending many of the "special interests" who have joined with The Empire.
So what gives?
The arguments for a Con-Con seem to be stronger. First, it is nonsensical to believe that we should avoid a Con-Con because the special interests that control our political process would also control the delegates. The state of our politics is such that big money and vested interests have come to a pretty comprehensive domination over the legislative and administrative process. That's not good.
Second, there is a practical problem to consider, which is that people are disaffected but change does not come. The solution available to us have not worked. Governor Blagojevich seems to constantly be one grand jury empanelment away from the hoosegow, where he would bunk up with the previous governor, of the other party. Disaffection is not recent, but systemic. If the tools available to Illinoisans were effective, why haven't they worked to date?
Because Illinoisans are dumb? Don't care? Secretly love our political-wild-west reputation and the immense waste, fraud and corruption scandals that come in increasingly high-frequency waves? This is a "pro" argument that just repeats a "con" argument: the current Constitution has all these various elements voters could use to stop what has been now nearly 20 years of clubby, hierarchical domination of the people's government. So why is it still so rancid?
The single most effective point raised, to my reckoning, was that the constitution could be retooled to finally destroy the incumbency advantage that keeps our democracy from being truly competitive — and therefore value-creating — system in our state. By taking the electeds out of the redistricting process, we end the charade whereby politicians pick us, rather than us picking them.
Lieutenant Governor Quinn spoke in strident terms against the rumors regarding the possibility of public employees losing their pensions. "The federal constitution precludes that," he said, "It's fear-mongering." He was referring to Article 1 Section 10 of the US Constitution, which prohibits states from any action that would impair the enforcement of contracts. Since pension obligations are defined as contractual by the current state constitution, the fear is that a Con-Con could change that definition and thus make the pensions non-contractual. The facts contradict the rumor (what a surprise); the Constitution and federal case law (stemming from a case originating in Rhode Island) protect anybody with a state pension in Illinois. The only at-risk group would be people hired by the state subsequent to the Con-Con, and even then only if that one element of the constitution is changed. I may be wrong about the legalities here, and would welcome a factual correction, but from what I can find it appears to be the case.
Quinn also used recent outrages to illustrate the deeper point that current gridlock and corruption is a graver threat to pensions, referring once to former state Senator Carol Ronen's suspiciously short stint (60 days) in the executive branch upon her retirement from the state Senate. As far as stints go, this was particularly lucrative, as it added $38,000 a year to her pension.
The constant state of affairs in Springfield is the best argument that the extant constitution could use some retooling. And if the only reasons not to convene a Con-Con are a pessimistic view of the people and a trembling fear of special interests, are those arguments we'll be willing to repeat to future generations of Illinoisans who inherit the political messes we keep tut-tutting without action?
There are risks to a Con-Con. For one thing, can the legislature be trusted to set reasonable parameters for the convention itself? Do we know enough to take the risk? Ms. Nesburg made the point well: "It's a Dirty Harry situation: 'Do you feel lucky?'" These are all things to be considered.
One attendee, Bryan Andres of Chicago, told me he was undecided. "Both sides are saying, 'You never know.'"
No, you never know. But you can be sure of that American philosophy, rooted in Jefferson and Paine, which says not knowing the future is an opportunity to take action and remake it. That the world belongs to the living to remake. That drastic change from below through debate is often preferable to measured change from up top.
Or do you prefer the other side, which says not knowing the future should mean caution, and measured change from up top?