Constitutional convention ideas are imported products

Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake
Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake

Of all the things Americans exchange across state lines, legislative verbiage may be among the most overlooked interstate products.

The U.S. Constitution provides a mechanism for a super majority of state legislatures to call a constitutional convention, where delegates could propose amendments to be ratified by the states.

In the 230 years since the original constitutional convention produced the document in place today, the states have never invoked Article V powers to convene another convention.

In recent years, left-wing and right-wing groups alike have sought to generate support for a new constitutional convention, and several state legislatures formally have joined those causes. So far this year, two resolutions introduced in the Iowa Legislature call for a constitutional convention, one from a Democrat and one from a Republican.

Senate Joint Resolution 11, filed by Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake, calls for an amendment imposing term limits on federal legislators. Senate Joint Resolution 6, filed by Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, calls for an amendment to “restore balance and integrity to our elections,” which would entail revoking rights upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

For context, recall there was a Republican-sponsored resolution last year calling for a convention to place “fiscal restraints” on the federal government, likely in the form of a balanced-budget amendment. That failed to achieve support from the full Legislature, but it was successful in prompting a public discussion about how convention calls are formulated.

Some Democrats have been fiercely opposed to convention pitches, in part because they are skeptical of these proposals’ origins.


Right-leaning groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Convention of States have put forth model bills and encouraged lawmakers to adopt them.

The similarities between the recommended language and last year’s balanced budget resolution helped prove that “key Iowa Republican lawmakers are taking direct orders from” special interest groups, according to Pat Rynard, a prominent Iowa blogger who promotes Democratic candidates and causes.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about outsiders unduly influencing Iowa’s legislative process, as Iowa Democrats frequently have alleged. That’s why I was surprised to see the anti-Citizens United resolution, sponsored by a Democrat, also relies heavily on outside groups’ recommendations.

Kinney’s resolution liberally borrows words and phrases from measures passed in California, Vermont, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island. It’s part of an organized effort led by Wolf-PAC, a California-based organization founded by prominent liberal commentator Cenk Uygur.

Like the convention calls Democrats have criticized, Kinney’s “balance and integrity” proposal is composed with populist language, but in reality was written in large part by unknown people in other states. These proposals come from AstroTurf, not the grass roots.

But does it even matter where our legislation is written? After all, the subject matter of each of the resolutions I’ve mentioned here — balanced budgets, federal term limits and restrictions on corporate political spending — enjoy broad support from Americans.

What’s more, Iowa has a citizen legislature, not a class of professional policymakers. It would be foolish to expect lawmakers to ignore the groundwork already laid in other states, and start from scratch on their own proposals. I hope Iowans will assess these ideas on their merits, not based on their origin stories.

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