Ron DeSantis, appearing in Idaho ads, calls for a constitutional convention
By Kirby Wilson,2023-01-24
A Floridian traveling through Boise, Idaho, might hear a familiar voice if they tune into a local radio station.
Since early January, Gov. Ron DeSantis has appeared in ads on the radio and on Fox News urging the people of Idaho to call for a never-before-seen convention of the states to amend the U.S. Constitution.
The governor’s stated end game? To see congressional term limits enacted.
“The members of Congress will never vote to limit their own power. That’s why we need states to step up and take action. Idaho could be the next state to pass a resolution calling for an Article V term limits convention — giving state legislators a way to make term limits on Congress a reality,” DeSantis says in the ad.
It’s the latest example of Florida’s popular Republican governor taking his political agenda to a national audience. DeSantis campaigned in Nevada and Arizona — and endorsed candidates in other states — during the 2022 election cycle. The governor, who is widely eyed as a potential 2024 presidential contender, is showing with these Idaho ads how he remains a trusted pitchman for conservatives.
“We consider Gov. DeSantis our general in the fight for congressional term limits,” wrote a spokesperson for U.S. Term Limits, the group running the ads, in an emailed statement.
The Idaho campaign also underscores an ambitious goal for DeSantis and his allies: amending the U.S. Constitution.
The Constitution has never been changed like this
The goal of the D.C.-based U.S. Term Limits group is relatively straightforward. Nonpartisan, even. It wants U.S. senators and representatives to have limits on how long they can stay in office.
It’s an idea that’s been championed by conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Democratic former President Barack Obama. DeSantis pushed for term limits when he was a U.S. representative. (A political spokesperson for the governor did not return emails requesting comment.)
But the way DeSantis is pushing for that change is rife with legal uncertainty, experts say.
Article V of the nation’s founding document lays out two methods for creating new amendments: Either Congress can suggest an amendment by a two-thirds vote in each chamber, or a convention called by two-thirds of the states can propose one. The amendment must then be ratified by conventions or legislatures in three-fourths of the states.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times in American history. All 27 times, the proposal has originated in Congress. The last time a constitutional change was ratified was in 1992.
The state constitutional convention method — which DeSantis is calling for — has never happened. Key details about such a convention are not spelled out in the Constitution.
For example: If two-thirds of the states call for a convention, but do so for dozens of different reasons, does a convention happen? And when do calls for a convention expire?
“We don’t actually know,” said Jonathan Marshfield, an associate professor of law at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. “There’s a variety of different approaches that could be taken.”
According to the advocacy group Convention of the States Action, 19 states have called for a convention for one reason or another since 2014. Nearly all are controlled by Republicans.
Florida is among those states; the Republican-led Legislature has twice in recent years voted in favor of calling a convention of the states. In 2014, lawmakers pushed to restrict federal legislation to a single subject, and in 2016, they called for congressional term limits.
DeSantis isn’t the first potential Republican presidential contender to call for a convention of the states. In 2015 — before he officially announced his bid — then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich traveled to Idaho to push for such a convention. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also called for a convention when he ran for president that cycle.
Louis Virelli, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law, said some politicians might sense an opportunity in the legal gray areas surrounding the convention path.
“I am assuming that proponents of the approach have a version of the convention in mind that politically benefits them,” Virelli said.
The people of Idaho have been discussing whether to push for a constitutional convention of the states for more than a century. In 1918, the Gem State was one of at least five states to vote on a referendum about whether to call for such a convention. Voters defeated it, with 69% voting no.
The convention idea was reinvigorated about half a decade ago, when some Republican lawmakers proposed calling for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. That effort, too, was defeated in the state Senate.
Marv Hagedorn, a former Republican Idaho senator who sponsored a 2017 convention call, said it was defeated by conservative lawmakers worried a convention could go beyond its prescribed purpose. (Some refer to this possibility as a “runaway convention.”)
That’s why lawmakers from nearly two dozen states convened in Phoenix in 2017 to agree on the rules that would govern a potential convention of the states.
But those rules aren’t binding, and some conservative lawmakers in Idaho still have reservations, Hagedorn said.
U.S. Term Limits spent about $224,000 on the 2022 elections in Idaho. That year saw huge turnover in the Idaho Legislature, meaning plenty of lawmakers could be considering the constitutional convention question for the first time this year. (Notably, Gem State lawmakers do not have term limits. Florida’s do.)
U.S. Term Limits is betting DeSantis will help convince Idaho officials. Hagedorn says DeSantis might move the needle among conservatives who see him as a more polished alternative to former President Donald Trump.
“Even Idahoans who were staunch Trump supporters are saying Trump’s time is past and it’s time for somebody like DeSantis,” Hagedorn said.
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