Thursday, October 11, 2007

It is time for a new U.S. Constitution

Professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, proposes the United States rewrite its constitution to make it a fairer and more responsive document to the needs of 21st Century Americans. In today’s L.A. Times he writes:
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:

* 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 If one house votes no on extending, all combat troops must be withdrawn within a year.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.

* 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.…

* 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. …

* 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.
Our Constitution is indeed problematic. It is undemocratic and deserves rewriting. Our elections are skewed towards voters in tiny states and away from the majority of voters across the country. Justices for the U.S. Supreme Court are appointed for life. Our government is one of the few Western democracies with an office of Vice President – an essentially do-nothing job for someone not independently elected. The will of the majority of the Senate can be blocked by a minority using arcane rules. The redrawing of Congressional districts virtually guarantees that representatives get to pick their voters rather than voters pick their representatives. The Constitution doesn’t even explicitly protect the right to vote. Our national governance may appear democratic on the surface but below the veneer is a Byzantine system that works against the popular will.

Despite all the talk of the balance of power between the three braches of government, the reality is the executive is head and shoulders above the other two branches in power and that power is growing. Wartime hysteria is used to expand and justify the abuse of powers by the executive branch. Unlike a parliamentary system where the executive is joined to the legislative branch and a vote of no confidence can bring down the government and force an election, the President can carry on policy more or less independent of the wishes of the legislative branch and cannot be removed from office other than the extraordinary act of impeachment. Currently, the President enjoys the support of only a third of the country yet essentially has tenure.

Everyone gets just one vote but we all know wealth can cancel out a lot of single votes. There is a point that disillusionment sinks in and participation drops off. If the system becomes so muddled and unresponsive to the public then is it still a democracy? There seems to be a sense in the country that choices in the market place are a substitute for political power but are Americans willing to fight and die because they have defined democracy down to a system that offers them a choice between shopping at Walmart versus Target? Let’s face it – most people don’t bother to vote because their vote makes little difference. The whole system is in need of repair.

What many of us really admire in our U.S. Constitution is the Bill of Rights. However, it is telling that they were amendments – i.e. afterthoughts. The bulk of the document contains many structural flaws that hamper us today. It is time for a new U.S. Constitution.


Bill Garnett said...

Thanks, interesting post - congratulations. I have followed this Sabato initiative a bit. You may find my tongue in cheek essay of six years ago also interesting.


Gina said...

A proposal for a new constitution is detrimental to our country. Our Founding Fathers were geniouses way beyond their time. The Constitution is a living document for ALL generations. Many of your points are flawed (ex. not proper representation of large states due to having only 2 senators --that's what the HOUSE OF REPS is for: proper representation.)
Thank goodness the Constitution is still alive and well despite thoughts and attempts by a rare few to destroy it.

Anonymous said...

Where do you have suggestions??
I agree the system is broken.
Term Limits
No retirement for representatives
Lottery Assignments for election candidates; Money talks too many ways.
Judges intrepret what isn't written; Judges therefore write laws; not interpreting them.
The list goes on and on; alot of ways to improve the constitution but what has been stolen by our "elected" officials will not be given up.
Mostly lawyers and millionares represent us; sure that's representative.