This is no time for a constitutional convention

The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

So amid the deepening political divisions and thrill-a-minute volatility of our post-truth Trumpian times, Republicans running our Legislature think the moment is right to grab us by the Constitution.

Last month, the Iowa House voted 58-38 along party lines to petition Congress to convene a constitutional convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution. The convention, according to House Joint Resolution 12, would be “limited to consideration and support of amendments that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, and amendments that limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and no amendments on any other topic.”

So just money, power and jurisdiction. What else is there?

It’s now awaiting action in the Iowa Senate. Its floor manager there, Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said a debate will come “soon.”

The resolution’s writers have a flare for drama. It addresses our “crushing national debt.” It accuses our federal government of “abuses of power” and talks of how it’s “invaded the legitimate role of states” through federal mandates. It has “ceased to live under proper interpretation of the Constitution.”

Stirring, to be sure. But the convention won’t come in time to stop the feds from, for instance, invading Iowa with a fresh $225 million transfusion to save Gov. Terry Branstad’s hemorrhaging Medicaid scheme. Such future federal incursions, funding roads, crop insurance and water quality, surely could be halted. Ask your nearest county supervisor, after lawmakers’ 2017 local control pre-emption fest, about abuses of power, legitimate roles and unfunded mandates.

But I digress.

State Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant, led the charge in the House on March 15, insisting a constitutional convention would be like a “subcommittee,” or simply a “proving ground for new ideas.” It can happen if 34 state legislatures approve petitions. Nine have taken the plunge, including Arizona, Georgia, Alaska, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Other states, including Wisconsin and Ohio, are debating the issue.

Some con-con backers claim as many as 30 states have passed resolutions, counting actions taken years or even decades ago. Maryland just rescinded its resolution, passed in 1977.

“If not us, then who? If not now, when?” Nunn asked the House as debate opened.

It was hardly a debate for the ages.


Minority Democrats questioned the wisdom of lecturing Congress at a time when Iowa’s budget is a mess. That didn’t sit well with Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, who called a “point of order,” accusing Democrats of breaking House rules by going off topic. Apparently you can’t discuss state budgetary imprudence in a debate over federal budgetary imprudence. Somehow, his point was well taken by House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.

It was not until Rep. Tim Kacena, D-Sioux City, rose to speak did we get a solid assessment of the convention drive.

“I can honestly say this resolution scares the hell out of me,” said Kacena, a retired firefighter who probably knows scary when he sees it. “This is dangerous.”

The thought of popping the hood on the Constitution at this point in our history is pretty scary. Our facts now are alternative. Our political cash comes in two flavors, shady and dark. Our nation just put a tweeting huckster in the Oval Office. Scrapping health insurance for 24 million people is what passes for sound public policy. We’re still trying to recover from the Bowling Green massacre.

A convention, now? Maybe the Russians will send delegates.

Sure, it takes 34 states to call a convention and 38 states to ratify any amendments it yields. No worries. That will never happen. Just like Donald Trump will never be president. Thank goodness.

I’m not going to defend the crushing national debt or any other boneheaded action taken by the federal government. There are many. And I can think of ways I’d like to change the Constitution.

But when the hottest trend in governing is called “the nuclear option,” the time to change the Constitution is not now. The people to do it is not us.

Legislatures across the country, including Iowa’s, are shoving through sweeping ideologically-driven initiatives with all the care, caution and concern for consequences of Visigoths on a Roman holiday. They would pick the convention delegates. That ought to work out well.

And a convention would not necessarily be “limited.”


We’ve had one such convention, in 1787. It was called by Congress to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead, delegates tossed the articles and crafted an entirely new Constitution. It was a masterstroke for the future of America. It is not an example of cautious restraint.

Drake University Professor Dennis Goldford, who teaches constitutional law, said there were strong objections to straying from Congress’ original charge in 1787. James Madison answered those criticisms in Federalist 40.

“He said, look, if you think things are so tough and difficult right now that we can’t stay where we are, then go ahead and vote for this new Constitution, and we’ll take that as your consent to the rather irregular procedure we adopted,” Goldford said. “If you think that we had a runaway convention … vote against the new proposed Constitution.

“So we had precisely this issue as far back as 1787-1788. Our only constitutional convention in American history was itself a runaway convention,” Goldford said.

And if a convention’s actions sparked a court challenge, it’s uncertain what jurisdiction the courts would have, Goldford said.

“This opens up a huge can of worms,” Goldford said.

I say let’s not open that can.

Conservatives who want big changes at the federal level should note they currently control Congress and the White House, with a Supreme Court majority on the way. A convention isn’t necessary, unless you want to do things so unpopular they can’t be accomplished through the normal political process. Many of these proposals also are known as bad ideas.

And HJR 12 is a bad idea. The Senate should grab it and scrap it.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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