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Exploring ramifications of calling for a constitutional convention


Many state leaders are fed up with Congress and the federal government, but the only formal and binding tool they have to push back against federal encroachment is to call a constitutional convention. Utah Senate Pres. Wayne Neiderhauser is working with colleagues around the country to establish rules for such a convention. We explore the ramifications.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution gives two-thirds of state legislatures the authority to call a constitutional convention. Do state leaders have serious enough grievances with the federal government to justify calling such a convention?

Pignanelli: “A Constitution should be short and obscure.” — Napoleon Bonaparte My teenage children, armed with debit cards while binging on french-fries, video games and hair extensions, practice more fiscal responsibility than Congress. Americans are so frustrated with Washington, D.C., that resorting to sorcery and the dark arts is now a viable option to secure the much needed Balanced Budget Amendment.

But concerns with the federal government are beyond profligacy. Liberals and conservatives agree federal agencies (but disagree as to which ones) exercise regulatory and enforcement powers beyond constitutional parameters. Severe transgressions — including overzealous trampling of basic rights and strangling entrepreneurial endeavors — demonstrate the feds are out of control. But how does a constitutional convention, or an amendment, address these problems? A wholesale shift in what Americans expect from their leaders and the role of a national central government must occur. Americans of all political stripes are suspicious of Washington, D.C., but accept federal largess. Hopefully, all the discussions and machinations behind a constitutional convention (regardless whether one occurs) may alter Americans perceptions and expectations from their federal government. So kudos to Niederhauser and others for capturing some benefit from this constitutional nuance.

Webb: The nation’s founders fully expected the states to push back against the federal government if it grew too large and tried to centralize power. They specifically gave state legislators power to call a constitutional convention as a check on federal power. Utah leaders, if they have enough courage, could be in the middle of a renaissance of state clout. Gov. Gary Herbert will be National Governors Association chair from the summer of 2015 to summer of 2016 — a nice bully pulpit to champion balanced federalism. Sen. Curt Bramble is moving up in leadership in the National Conference of State Legislatures. Sen. Neiderhauser is already working on the issue. If these Utah leaders make balanced federalism a high priority and devote some real energy, they could make progress.

As I’ve written previously, the biggest problem with federalism is that it has been defined as a right-wing, ideological issue. Utah leaders need to help redefine it as a mainstream, common sense, problem-solving solution to the dysfunction and gridlock at the federal level.

Because of opposition from the far left and the far right, the states have never called a constitutional convention. Will this attempt be any different?

Pignanelli: While most political commentators mention Gov. Mike Leavitt's foray into the constitutional convention debate (which insiders refer to as “ConCon”), the real battle was within the Legislature in the late 1980s. The fight over ConCon impacted leadership and intraparty convention elections and fostered inter-caucus fights. I still suffer scars and posttraumatic syndrome from my intense engagement in the ConCon warfare. Ultra-liberals and ultraconservatives will combat to prevent a reopening of the Constitution — regardless of preconditions.

Webb: It’s time for the states to fight to restore their rightful role in the federal system. Never has the federal government been so dysfunctional or been held in such low esteem. Citizens understand the federal government has grown too large, too unwieldy, too top-heavy, too bureaucratic and too ungovernable. Citizens trust their local and state governments, while holding the federal government in distain. Now is the time for state leaders to make the case they can outperform the federal government if they have more responsibility and more resources. And the only effective tool they have is to move toward calling a constitutional convention.

Is the far right’s fear of a “runaway convention” legitimate or more right-wing paranoia?

Pignanelli: In 1787, the Continental Congress organized a convention of delegates to "devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." The original intent was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but several strong personalities (i.e. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, etc.) had other ideas. Although espoused by extremists, the fear of ConCon messing with the Constitution beyond a balanced budget amendment does have a legitimate historic basis. Therefore: BE CAREFUL!

Webb: Nothing demonstrates the utter irrationality and naivety of the paranoid ultra-right than their opposition to a state-called constitutional convention. They forget that the national Congress sits as a constitutional convention every day it is in session. Do these right-wing fear-mongers trust the Congress more than they trust state leaders? Any amendment proposed by delegates would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states — an enormous hurdle. No frivolous amendment would ever be passed. This is a tool provided by the nation’s founders. It’s the only thing that would get the attention of the federal government and check federal power. State leaders should use this tool.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. E-mail: