Grass-roots effort to re-define federal government on the move in NJ
"Well, we elected 'em...what can we do?"
If, from where you stand, the federal government seems bloated, archaic and out of touch with the people it serves, there actually is something you can do.
It's a clause in the U.S. Constitution, Article V, and it's the launch pad for a movement to organize a Convention of States.
The two-year-old group behind it, Citizens for Self Governance, exists in every state in America, composed of people from all walks of life, occupations, and educational and income levels.
They don't advocate reckless revolution. They've read our nation's founding document, and found the component that gives voters a voice beyond the polling booth.
Simply stated, Article V allows states to bring all three branches of the federal government to heel, by organizing grievances into upward vertical communication that must be addressed and, potentially, leads to amendments.
For the Convention of States organizers nationwide, the main issues are reductions in federal spending, power and jurisdictions, and term limits for elected officials.
Calling a Convention of States isn't just sending out e-mails. It requires resolutions to be ratified in the legislatures of two-thirds of all states. That's 34 of 50. So far, they've succeeded in eight. New Jersey is a priority state on their to-do list.
Dan Gilligan, an insurance executive who also serves as New Jersey Director for Convention of States, leads the volunteer corps that has grown to about 500 in New Jersey alone.
"We're using a tool that is legitimate, and elegant, and was laid there with the intent that it be used so that citizens can have an effect at the federal level."
And by "legitimate," he means, placed there for that purpose, not construed to fit the purpose. If big government is just too big for its own good, Gillian says, "part of the reason...is because we, as citizens, have not really done what was expected that we would do, use the Article V tool as a check on the federal government."
The framers of the Constitution took pains to peer as clearly as they could into the future, Gilligan explained, and inserted the clause to ensure that the gulf between the nation's capital and its citizens would always have a bridge over it. In his view, and that of Citizens for Self Governance, Article V adds the populist voice to the system of checks and balances.
"They were prescient in understanding human nature," Gilligan said. "They said that if the issue is that federal government starts to do a lot more than we ever intended for it to do, we can't rely on it to fix itself."
Some students of the document, Gilligan said, believe that Article V was intended to be exercised every several decades, sort of a governmental tune-up. But it has yet to be employed.
"The states have a tool with which they're intended to act as a check on the federal government," he explained. "That tool hasn't been used. Our organization is about picking up that tool, and using it."
In New Jersey, Gilligan said, petitions have drawn about 12,000 signatures, about 500 volunteers are on the rolls, and the drive to move resolutions in the Legislature is gathering steam.
Republicans from disparate areas of the state are driving the resolutions. SCR-42 in the Senate has primary sponsors in Montville's Joseph Pennacchio and Washington Township's Michael Doherty, and co-sponsors including Robert Singer of Lakewood, Christopher "Kip" Bateman of Somerville, and Steven Oroho of Sparta.
In the Assembly, ACR-84's primary sponsors are Michael Patrick Carroll of Morris Plains and Robert Auth of Haskell. Co-sponsors are Assistant Republican Whips Jack Ciattarelli of Somerville and Erik Peterson of Clinton, Sean Kean of Wall Township, Ron Dancer of Jackson, John DiMaio of Bridgewater, David Russo of Midland Park, and Deputy Conference Leader Nancy Munoz of Summit.
The lists are luminous, to be sure, but Republican-driven bills have a built-in partisan obstacle in a Democrat-driven Legislature. To that end, Gilligan and his colleagues are approaching Democrats who represent sections of the state where response to their petition is significant. The next on their list is Bergen County Senator Robert Gordon.
Convention of States volunteers aren't fomenting policy. They are laboring to create the nationwide platform on which a re-definition of the role of government can be set forth. That requires terms that satisfy all participants in order to achieve ratification. So, it won't happen overnight. But it is under way.
If you hear echoes of "drain the swamp" in their mission, you might be right. But they're not focused on throwing a bunch of rascals out. They're focused on ensuring that they understand why they're there. Therefore, Gilligan doesn't see the rise of President-elect Donald Trump as an overt boost, or impediment, to their goals.
"This federally-prescribed tool...is, frankly, more powerful than any temporarily-elected office holder," Gilligan surmised. "No disparagement to that position. The President of the United States is very important. But we have things here, that, even if he could fix, I think it may be more appropriate - and I say this as a layman - to do it through the Constitutionally-prescribed Article V."