VIEWPOINTS: Changing the rules

Steffen Schmidt

After Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled a ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, many conservative politicians and churches demanded Iowa’s constitution be amended to prohibit gay marriage. The Iowa legislature has been controlled by a Democratic party majority and its leaders refused to allow a vote to eventually put an amendment on the ballot as has been done in many other states — all which passed — thereby banning gay marriage.

Besides amending the constitution, there has been talk and a call for a Constitutional Convention to change the constitution.

Stanford Levinson, professor in the department of government at the University of Texas, said, “A Constitutional Convention is a gathering for the purpose of writing a new constitution or revising an existing constitution.

A general constitutional convention is called to create the first constitution of a political unit or to entirely replace an existing constitution.

An unlimited Constitutional Convention is called to revise an existing constitution to the extent that it deems to be proper, whereas a limited Constitutional Convention is restricted to revising only the areas of the current constitution named in the convention’s call, the legal mandate establishing the convention.”

There are many obstacles before this convention could be a reality. The first hurdle to overcome in holding a convention would be simply to define its scope.

Obviously, Iowans may be so upset about politics and the state of things that they would approve a general convention in which a brand new constitution would be written. And what would be the potential advantages of a general constitutional convention? For one, Iowans could directly target some of the big issues that have been discussed for years in the state as potential ways to modernize Iowa.

Iowa became part of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. However, actual U.S. control over Iowa took place after the War of 1812 between the Unites States and the British Empire [mostly Canada]. It wasn’t until 1846 that Iowa became a State, and it was just over a decade later Iowa’s Constitution was written.

The Preamble to Iowa’s 1857 Constitution reads as follows:

“We the people of the State of Iowa, grateful to the Supreme Being for the blessings hitherto enjoyed, and feeling our dependence on Him for a continuation of those blessings, do ordain and establish a free and independent government, by the name of the State of Iowa.”

Iowa was a frontier agricultural state, and horses and buggies were the primary means of transportation. Iowa was eventually divided into 99 counties each with a government [the county seat] so that farmers would have time to ride into town and back to their farm during daylight.

The 99 counties are now considered to be too much in the 21st century, costing taxpayers a huge amount of money to maintain those 99 governments. Schools built in days past had to be small and close to where kids lived, but this is also too much for the current age. Iowa has many schools — too many according to some experts on government efficiency.

Another discussion has centered on Iowa’s legislature. The Iowa Senate has 50 members. Each Senator represents a separate geographic area of the state — a district — with roughly 56,000 people.

The Iowa House of Representatives has 100 members and each district contains roughly 28,000 people.

In California there are 80 members in the Assembly — the “House” — with each district having a population of at least 420,000. So, in Iowa we need one House member for 28,000 people and in California that one member can represent 420,000. California has 40 state senators for a population of almost 37 million people but Iowa has 50 senators for only a population of 3 million.

As a result of these disparities there has been discussion about the potential of reducing the number of members of the legislature in Iowa.

There has even been talk of considering making Iowa the second state — Nebraska is the only one now — to have a unicameral legislature with just one chamber.

All of these changes, it has been suggested, would cut costs and make the legislature more effective and streamlined and less subject to multiple constituent pressure.

Some analysts have also pointed out Iowa has more roads and small bridges per capita of any state. That’s because farming required many small sections that could be worked by animal power and, later, by small tractors. These same roads were needed to transport fertilizer and then bring on the crops. Today Iowa farming is done with gigantic machinery on huge farms and many have questioned the need and expense of the vast network of roads and bridges, which are very costly.

A constitutional convention could address all of these issues and perhaps launch “Iowa 2.0.”

This is something which can never be done simply by the legislature that would be pressured by every vested interest and, in fact, has not been able to implement many significant reforms over the forty years I have studied and written about Iowa government and politics.

However, all kinds of other topics would surely be brought up at a convention were it to happen — hot-button issues such as: allow or prohibit gay marriage, do away with income taxes, make all abortions legal or ban them completely, make the death penalty legal, etc.

It would be so high a risk for everybody that it’s likely that there will not be another constitutional convention in Iowa for the same reason why the United States has not had a Constitutional Convention since 1787 in Philadelphia.

Steffen Schmidt is a professor of political science and chief political correspondent for