Or so Larry J. Sabato would have us believe. More frequently than you might think, someone comes up with this idea as if it is new, fresh, and quite sensible. However, if one digs a little deeper, one sees that what’s being advocated isn’t really all that sensible.
The presidential candidates are offering prescriptions for everything from Iraq to healthcare, but listen closely. Their fixes are situational and incremental. Meanwhile, the underlying structural problems in American politics and government are systemic and prevent us from solving our most intractable challenges.
If we really want to make progress and achieve greater fairness as a society, it is time for elemental change. And we should start by looking at the Constitution, with the goal of holding a new Constitutional Convention.
Sound radical? If so, then the founders were radicals. They would be amazed and disappointed that after 220 years, the inheritors of their Constitution had not tried to adapt to new developments that the founders could never have anticipated in Philadelphia in 1787.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, insisted that “no society can make a perpetual Constitution. … The Earth belongs always to the living generation. … Every Constitution … naturally expires at the end of 19 years” (the length of a generation in Jefferson’s time).
The Constitution remains brilliant in its overall design and sound with respect to the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers. But there are numerous archaic provisions that inhibit constructive change and adaptation. These constitutional bits affect the daily life of the republic and every citizen in it. A few examples:
The founding fathers and framers of the Constitution foresaw the need for changes based upon advancing societies. Therefore, they built in to the Constitution a mechanism for making those changes while safeguarding that changes could not be made arbitrarily upon the whims of a select few. It’s called a Constitutional Amendment ,of which the founding fathers made use of, and giving us the Bill of Rights. Before I address the taking of Thomas Jefferson’s statement out of context as the premise for the articles entire argument, I’d like to address the arguments presented.
* Restoring the war powers balance. The framers split authority concerning matters of war-making between the president (commander in chief) and Congress (declaring war). Does anyone seriously believe that they would have approved of the executive department waging years-long wars without the explicit approval of the legislature? Yet the advantages accruing to any president — the unitary nature of the office, the swift action that only he can take in a hair-trigger world, his dominance of the televised public forum — have created an emperor as much as a president. The constitutional balance of shared war-making must be restored.The president should have the freedom to commit troops for up to six months, under procedures similar to that of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. But a new constitutional amendment should require that after six months — and every six months thereafter — both houses of Congress, by affirmative vote and without filibusters, would have to approve any extension. If one house votes no on extending, all combat troops must be withdrawn within a year.
This is an institutional reform, not a partisan attack on George W. Bush. Harry Truman on Korea and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on Vietnam were every bit as stubborn as Bush has been on Iraq. It is in the nature of the single-minded, victory-insistent presidential beast.
I would suggest the author read this: Striking a Balance between the Executive and Legislative Branches.
* Creating a more representative Senate. Stunningly, just 17% of the current American population elects a majority of the U.S. Senate. This is because even though California has about 70 times the population of Wyoming, both states get two U.S. senators. The larger states may have 83% of the nation’s people, but they get nothing without the approval of the lightly populated states. In the beginning of the republic, the population differential between the large and small states — and thus the unfairness — was far less. But today, the structure of the upper chamber of Congress is completely outmoded. Let’s build a fairer Senate by granting the 10 states with the greatest population two additional senators each, and the next 15 most populated states one additional senator each.
We already have a representative body that is determined by population. It’s called the House of Representatives. To propose a change to the Senate to reflect population by states is tantamount to giving larger states sovereignty over smaller, and consequently less powerful, states.
* Transforming presidential elections. Americans don’t have to be convinced that our presidential election system is broken. The nation needs a sensible system of rotating regional primaries so that it would no longer be subject to the selfish whims of a few states.
The electoral college also must be overhauled, with more populated states receiving additional electors so that a candidate who loses the popular vote can no longer become president. Why not abolish it entirely? The state-based electoral college isolates and simplifies recounts. Imagine how hopeless our predicament would be if the 2000 Florida recount had to be conducted nationwide.
Again this goes back to the sovereignty issue. A larger more populated state that advocates an ideology not fitting the needs of a smaller less populated state would be able to institute a condition of tyranny over the smaller state forcing it to an ideology wholey unsuited to its constituents and thereby taking away its rights to a representative government.
* Ending second-class citizenship. We promote the cultural myth that any mother’s son or daughter can grow up to be president, but it isn’t even literally true.
The founders were concerned about foreign intrigue in the early days of an unsettled republic, so they limited the presidency to those who were “natural born” citizens. But the melting pot that is now the United States includes an astonishing 14.4 million Americans who were not born on U.S. soil and are therefore ineligible for the presidency — a number sure to grow substantially. Among them are 30,000 members of the U.S. armed forces who risk life and limb to defend those enjoying first-class citizenship.
Any American who has been a citizen for at least 20 years should have the right to aspire to the White House.
Any naturalized American can aspire to any government position he or she so chooses barring those that could lead to the presidency of the United States. The author does not account for the fact that many naturalized citizens have dual citizenship and consequently divided loyalties when it comes to holding the highest office in the country.
Now, for the premise of his arguments: Thomas Jefferson’s statement. The statement was taken out of context and is located in the third from the last paragraph of a fairly long correspondence addressed to John Adams. For the purposes of this post I will quote only the containing paragraph. The complete text of the document can be found HERE.
On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.–It may be said that the succeeding generation exercising in fact the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law has been expressly limited to 19 years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves. Their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents: and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal. (bolding mine)
Here at the end of this passage, Mr. Jefferson highlights the various forces that can corrupt governments at all levels admits “the power of repeal is not an equivalent.” It seems as if the author is falling prey to many of those forces, advocating a new Constitution. Perhaps, in many ways, the framers did not believe the Constitution would withstand such a long test of time, but in their wisdom they built into the document various checks, balances, and mechanisms by which to safeguard the liberty of the people of the United States. These safeguards have held us in good stead for more than two centuries. The framers knew it was not perfection and provided the avenue for change. To lightly abolish it in favor of the whims of corruptible forces yields liberty to tyranny.
Once broken it cannot never be made whole again.