While a resolution calling for a convention of the states to place restrictions on the federal government stalled on the floor of the Legislature last year, a new call has been raised by citizens wishing to expel the influence of money in politics.
Introduced by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist this year, the resolution (LR268) adds Nebraska to the list of states calling for an Article V convention to draft amendments to the U.S. Constitution for the purpose of restoring the country’s “free and fair elections.”
“Americans across the political spectrum agree that the elections in the United States should be free from the disproportionate influence of special interests and fair enough that any citizen can be elected,” Krist said.
Josh Aciz, a national coordinator for Wolf-PAC, a nonpartisan organization helping lead the charge for the convention of states to specifically add campaign finance restriction language to the U.S. Constitution, called money in politics “the root that plagues our nation.”
“You name the issue, it’s almost certainly being affected by our broken campaign finance system, no matter what side of the political spectrum you happen to be on,” Aciz told the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
The idea that special interests had corrupted the country’s elections was something Republicans and Democrats agreed upon in the 2016 cycle, Aciz added, saying voters rallied behind the populist messages of then-candidate Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Fixing issues surrounding campaign finance would pave the way for the government to tackle other pressing issues, Aciz added, including the environment, education, health care, fiscal responsibility and the economy.
Several Nebraskans who testified before the committee last week said it was their first time interacting with state lawmakers. A convention to limit the influence of money in politics would restore their faith in government, they said.
“Somebody should have already fixed this issue,” said Tony McDermott of Holdrege, who has volunteered to raise awareness of a proposed convention over the last year. “It’s clear that Congress is not going to fix this issue themselves.”
Omahan Mike Carolus told the committee that as spending in campaigns increases, the voice of individual voters is lost, causing citizens to lose their faith in the electoral process.
John McCardle, also of Omaha, called the Article V amendment a way “to get Congress to pay attention.”
Civil rights and transparency groups advised the committee to reject joining the call for a convention, however, stating concerns that a convention could intentionally or unintentionally erase almost 230 years of constitutional history.
John Cartier, director of voting rights for Civic Nebraska, said the founding fathers saw any potential change to the constitution through the Article V process as a “nuclear option” to be avoided at all costs.
The only historical precedent for an Article V convention, Cartier pointed out, was the 1787 convention which, instead of proposing changes to the country’s first governing document, threw out the Articles of Confederation to draft the U.S. Constitution.
“The delegates at the convention were restricted to the sole, express purpose of revising the Articles, however, the delegates ignored instructions both from Congress and the states and wrote a new constitution,” Cartier said.
Krist’s broad resolution did not do enough to guard against unwanted attempts by delegates to change the constitution, he added.
Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, said the convention to expel special interests from politics would draw those same special interests attempting to carve out exemptions to the proposed constitutional amendment “like flies to a corpse.”
“I don’t know which one is going to win out at the end of the day, but that’s going to be a major issue” Geis said.
The hearing for Krist’s resolution lasted nearly two hours, prompting questions from senators skeptical of both supporters of a convention as well its opponents.
Many of those questions echoed debate that swirled around a separate call for a convention of states (LR6) brought to the Legislature last year by Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete.
LR6 would have added Nebraska to a chorus of states calling for a convention proposing amendments to limit the size and scope of the federal government, restrict federal spending and implement term limits.
Debate ceased on the resolution after Ebke was unable to secure the 33 votes needed to end a filibuster.
As they did then, senators last week raised the phantom of a runaway convention that would ignore the parameters of the meeting and instead rewrite the Constitution wholesale.
While Aciz said the idea of a runaway convention was a scare tactic used by opponents of a proposed convention, Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers said nothing in LR268 constrained delegates from considering amendments other than “to restore free and fair elections.”
Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue asked a similar question of Aciz, saying she had yet to receive “a definitive answer as to how it’s going to be controlled.”
Aciz said several safeguards would be present: Congress would have a role to play in an Article V convention, setting the day, time and topic to be discussed; a runaway convention could be challenged in the courts; and states could recall delegates pushing for changes outside the scope of the proposed convention.
A separate measure introduced in Nebraska’s Legislature (LB1058) by Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings seeks to address those commonly voiced concerns raised by an Article V convention.
Halloran proposed guidelines for choosing delegates to a convention and only allowing the delegation to act on positive instructions from the Legislature or by a committee consisting of the Executive Board and the lieutenant governor.
Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, one of two African-American state lawmakers, entertained the proposal to rewrite the entire Constitution, noting the nation’s founding document was framed by an exclusive group of wealthy, white men.
Only about half of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee members would have been eligible to offer ideas for the U.S. Constitution more than 230 years ago.
“How much better can a document be if that diversity is allowed in the room?” he asked. “What better Constitution could we come up with today?”