In Iowa: Right idea, wrong time to amend the Constitution

Adam Sullivan
Adam Sullivan

Is America ready to party like it’s 1787?

A national movement of state legislators is advocating for another Constitutional convention. A bill under consideration in the Iowa Legislature calls for a “convention to propose amendments to the Constitution of the United States that impose fiscal restraints, and limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.”

The language is similar to that promoted by conservative groups like Convention of States and the American Legislative Exchange Council, except Iowa’s version does not include a call for term limits.

Good ideas, but perhaps the wrong time.

Opponents are framing the convention movement as an attempted far-right power grab. Somehow, simply crying “Koch brothers” at ideas you don’t like passes for political discourse these days. In reality, though, the stated goals for a Constitutional convention are supported by large portions of Americans.

The call to “impose fiscal restraints” hints at a balanced budget amendment, requiring Congress to square spending and revenue. In 1995, a proposal for a balanced budget amendment passed the U.S. House, but fell just one vote short of the required supermajority in the U.S. Senate.

Republicans tried and failed in 2011 and 2013 to assemble support for the amendment. Polls then showed a clear majority of Americans supported the idea in general, but had mixed views on specific proposals.

Meanwhile, term limits —pushed by many convention activists, but not included in the Iowa bill — have held popular support for many years. When then-candidate Donald Trump called for term limits on Congress during his 2016 campaign, a Rasmussen poll found 74 percent of voters favored the idea.

Those policies may be championed by Republicans, but they are hardly radical right-wing schemes.

However, another concern is the lack of guidance the Constitution offers about how a convention might work. Article 5, just one sentence and 143 words, describes two methods of amending the Constitution: Congress can pass amendments to be ratified by two-thirds of the state legislatures, or two-thirds of the legislatures can call for a convention.


With no prescribed process or structure, some advocates worry a convention would be open season to blast bad amendments.

“Imagine the squabbling members of Congress you see every night on television setting themselves up as modern-day George Washingtons, James Madisons and Ben Franklins, and flipping everything on its head,” Iowa Policy Project policy analyst Peter Fisher wrote last week in response to the legislation.

After all, when delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787 to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation, they ended up scrapping the document and writing a new one under their own rules. It reminds us that governments are not facts of nature, they are manufactured by small groups of people, fleeting in the scope of history.

The push to amend our Constitution is a response to gridlock and dysfunction in Washington. However, frustrating as federal inaction may be, it stems from modern Americans’ legitimate and deep-seated differences about the proper role of government.

A moment of such deep ideological division hardly seems the best time to put pen to parchment and change the Constitution. These good ideas may have to wait.

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