Brent Batten: A new take on an old, old idea

BRENT BATTEN

Richard Daly is big on online petitions.

President of a medical device manufacturing firm in Naples by day, he is the man behind PetitionTheGovernment, a website full of Internet-based petitions in his spare time.

Now he is taking the idea of the petition one step further, trying to advance a change to the U.S. Constitution that would give citizens a new way to bypass Washington in amending the nation's founding document.

It's similar to the system in place in Florida, that allows a process whereby citizen petitions can put amendments to the state constitution on the ballot whether the state Legislature wants them there or not.

The Florida system has been criticized because issues not of constitutional magnitude sometimes end up proposed as amendments, rather than as simple laws. The most famous case may be the 2002 pregnant pigs amendment that constitutionally banned keeping gestating sows in pens too small for them to turn around. The amendment became a rallying point for those who claim it is too easy to change the state's charter.

Daly acknowledges that should his proposal come about, unnecessary or "crazy" ideas could be proposed for the U.S. Constitution, but they'd only pass only if a supermajority of three fourths of state legislatures approve. That, he says, sets his idea apart from the Florida method, where at one time a simple majority of voters could pass an amendment. The threshold is now 60 percent.

Under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, Congress can propose an amendment via a vote of two-thirds of both the U.S. House and Senate. An alternative method, one that has never been used, requires a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures to call a constitutional convention, during which amendments may be proposed. In either case, approval by three-fourths of the states is required for an amendment to pass.

Daly's proposed changes to Article V would allow two-thirds of the state legislatures to directly propose an amendment, doing away with the need for a convention. Also included is a provision that allows citizens of two-thirds of the states, via petitions, to propose an amendment. In either case, the three-fourths threshold for adoption would have to be met.

Washington, D.C., is out of touch with the American people, Daly believes. Measures that enjoy broad support in the public get no traction because they don't serve the politicians' interests. He cites the failure last month of a balanced-budget amendment in the U.S. House despite polls showing 75 percent approval for such an amendment as one example.

But the balanced budget amendment is just one possibility. He says he doesn't know what other issues might arise if citizens gain the right to propose amendments without the help of Congress. Maybe term limits? Or a return to U.S. senators being elected by state legislatures? "I'm not so bold as to think I would know what the people would want," he said. "My idea is to try to implement something. Then it's up to the states and the people."

The text and rationale behind the changes to Article V can be found at PetitionTheGovernment.com.

James Wilson, one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution and one of the original justices on the Supreme Court, was an advocate of the sort of popular amendment to the Constitution Daly is now suggesting. In 1787 he wrote, "The people may change the constitutions whenever and however they please. This is a right of which no positive institution can ever deprive them."

But no process for doing so has ever been established.

With the advent of the online petition, perhaps the time has come.

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