(I've asked Prof. Larry Sabato to discuss his new book in depth on the site, over the coming weeks, to spur discussion about his radical and quite intriguing idea to call for a Second Constitutional Convention to update the U.S. Constitution. It's a scary proposal for what should be obvious reasons, but his book is a great look at the parts of the Constitution that don't work, and what could be done to update our most cherished national document. To be clear -- no money has exchanged any hands to make this happen -- kos)
Throughout the history of the American republic, politicians have run on platforms of change: changing healthcare, or the economy, or foreign policy. They have promised their constituents that they will go and "clean up" Washington, and encouraged voters to "throw the bums out." But nowhere amidst their posturing has there been a call for changing the system itself; no one seems to see that maybe it’s the Constitution, not just the Congress, that needs to be cleaned up.
In the 220 years since the Constitution was written, the United States has undergone a great transformation. The 13 original states on the Atlantic seaboard have grown into 50, from sea to shining sea. Advances in transportation and communications have created an interconnected nation that shares information in the blink of an eye. We've seen the growth of political parties, and the various institutions and practices that come with them.
But what we haven't seen is major Constitutional reform. There have only been 17 amendments (the first 10 must be considered a part of the original document), one of which simply reversed another, others of which have been quite minor. Despite the new realities of the modern United States, our government runs under the direction of a document written with quill pens. This is not what our founders envisioned. Thomas Jefferson insisted that, "No society can make a perpetual Constitution...The earth belongs always to the living generation." He wanted major Constitutional reform every generation. One of Jefferson's great contemporaries, James Madison, agreed on the matter, saying that constitutional revisions would be "a salutary curb on the living generation from imposing unjust or unnecessary burdens on their successors."
The Constitution remains brilliant in its overall design. The Founders devised a political system that separated the powers of government, placed mutual checks on the powers each branch held, and ensured certain civil and human rights. Any new Constitutional initiatives must steer clear of infringing upon these bedrock principles of American government.
The first step toward changing the Constitution is beginning a discussion of what's going wrong with the one we have, and what we might do to fix it. Over the next several weeks, I'll be posting diaries outlining some of my proposals for Constitutional reform (which number 23 in all, though only a sampling will appear here). This week I hope to provide readers with some general ideas to get the creative discourse started; as the weeks progress, I'll be going into greater depth on some proposals.
To begin with, by what sort of mechanism would all of this constitutional change be achieved? Our present Constitution outlines two ways to bring about amendments. The method used for all amendments up until now has been a proposed amendment passing both houses of Congress by a two-thirds majority in each house, then getting ratified by three-quarters of the states. For interlocking reforms of the scope and scale that I am proposing, however, such a piecemeal process wouldn't work.
Instead, we need to turn to the second process, one never before used in the history of the United States: a Constitutional Convention. Thirty-four states would petition Congress for a Convention, and the Congress would be obligated to call it—while designing a "Call to Convention" document that would list the subjects to be considered by the delegates. The Congress would be able to, and should, bar the convention from addressing hot-button social issue amendments, such as abortion or gay marriage, or tampering with the Bill of Rights; if the convention does so anyway, Congress could refuse to send the amendments to the states for ratification, as it would have the right to do.
The ultimate check on any Convention, though, is the requirement that thirty-eight states ratify any proposed change to the Constitution. There are more than enough Blue States, and Red States, to stop any partisan or ideologically driven amendment dead in its tracks. It only takes a mere thirteen states to bring down the curtain on any change.
Under the proposals that I will discuss in succeeding days are some affecting each branch of the federal government. For instance, concerning the Congress, I would expand the size of the Senate to ease the dramatic disparity in representation among states—the massive inequality from a population perspective that directly impacts the legislation passed or killed daily in the Senate. I will make the policy case for an admittedly difficult political alteration: Each of the 10 most populous states would receive an extra two senators, and each of the next 15 most populous states would get one additional senator. The District of Columbia would also receive representation in the Senate.
The most far-reaching reform that I propose for the executive branch is a dramatic redistribution of war powers, restoring the Congress' original co-equal Constitutional role. This shift is not only achievable; it almost certainly has broad support among the American public after the experiences of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.
For the judiciary, under my plan, all federal judges would face a 15-year term limit, without renewal, and the Supreme Court would be expanded to 12 members from its present nine.
I also propose a new and quite necessary Article on Politics. The founders did not much care for the subject, believing neither in mass democracy nor political parties. They came to accept both as inevitable, required, and even healthful, but not until long after the Constitution was written. The lack of governing guidance in the Constitution has led to all sorts of mischief, not least the state free-for-all that has produced the insanely frontloaded primary schedule for 2008. And reform of the Electoral College system is an inevitable goal for a project like mine, so naturally I have included it.
Lastly, let me mention my suggestion of a new Constitutional Bill of Responsibilities, to balance the Bill of Rights. At its heart is universal national service (UNS) for the young. Domestic civilian, nonprofit, and Peace Corps service is included, not just military conscription. My detailed and cost-effective plan for UNS attempts to revive and channel the idealism of youth in much the way John F. Kennedy began to do with the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.
This is a mere posting of topics to get us started. I will be on-line to answer questions and hear other points of view, and I appreciate the opportunity to do so.
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