Democracy: 23 Proposals to Revitalize the US Constitution

I find myself unpersuaded by many of Larry Sabato's 23 Proposals to Revitalize the US Constitution. Drawn from his book, A More Perfect Constitution, where they are well-argued, they are certainly worthy of consideration. To my mind, though, he gives too little emphasis to rebuilding accountable institutions (labor unions, political parties, community groups), and it strikes me that some of the ideas he embraces where adopted have turned out to have unintended consequences: term limts, for example, meant to encourage frequent rotation of office (the political value of that goal escapes me, but never mind) has in practice tended to increase the power of bureaucracies and lobbies, not an outcome Sabato desires, I think. I have no disagreement, however, with his basic premise that our political system is seriously in need of reform. Here's the list:

1. Expand the Senate to 136 members to be more representative: Grant the 10 most populous states 2 additional Senators, the 15 next most populous states 1 additional Senator, and the District of Columbia 1 Senator. [See, Democracy: How do we achieve One Person One Vote? (Impractical Proposals 2009-10-09)]

2. Appoint all former Presidents and Vice Presidents to the new office of “National Senator.”

3. Mandate non-partisan redistricting for House elections to enhance electoral competition.

4. Lengthen House terms to 3 years (from 2) and set Senate terms to coincide with all Presidential elections, so the entire House and Senate would be elected at the same time as the President.

5. Expand the size of the House to approximately 1,000 members (from current 435), so House members can be closer to their constituents, and to level the playing field in House elections.

6. Establish term limits in the House and Senate to restore the Founders’ principle of frequent rotation in office.

7. Add a Balanced Budget Amendment to encourage fiscal fairness to future generations.

8. Create a Continuity of Government procedure to provide for replacement Senators and Congresspeople in the event of deaths or extensive incapacitation.
9. Establish a new 6-year, 1-time Presidential term with the option for the President to seek 2 additional years in an up/down referendum of the American people.

10. Limit some Presidential war-making powers and expand Congress’s oversight of war-making.

11. Give the President a line-item veto.

12. Allow men and women not born in the U.S. to run for President or Vice President after having been a citizen for 20 years.
Supreme Court:
13. Eliminate lifetime tenure for federal judges in favor of non-renewable 15-year terms for all federal judges.

14. Grant Congress the power to set a mandatory retirement age for all federal judges.

15. Expand the size of the Supreme Court from 9 to 12 to be more representative.

16. Give federal judges guaranteed cost of living increases so pay is never an issue.
17. Write a new constitutional article specifically for the politics of the American system.

18. Adopt a regional, staggered lottery system, over 4 months, for Presidential party nominations to avoid the destructive front-loading of primaries.

19. Mend the Electoral College by granting more populated states additional electors, to preserve the benefits of the College while minimizing the chances a President will win without a majority of the popular vote.

20. Reform campaign financing by preventing wealthy candidates from financing their campaigns, and by mandating partial public financing for House and Senate campaigns.

21. Adopt an automatic registration system for all qualified American citizens to guarantee their right to vote is not abridged by bureaucratic requirements.
Universal National Service:
22. Create a Constitutional requirement that all able-bodied young Americans devote at least 2 years of their lives in service to the country.
National Constitutional Convention:
23. Convene a new Constitutional Convention using the state-based mechanism left to us by the Framers in the current Constitution.
Although intended to advance democracy, some of these proposals strike me as anti-democratic.  Why should former leaders who have lost the confidence of the citizenry, a Jimmy Carter, say, or a George W. Bush, be restored to a degree of power by lifetime appointment to the Senate? (And vice presidents?  Makes you wonder for a minute if Sabato is kidding.) Unless you adopt other "reforms"  -- regional qualifications?  race and gender quotas? -- it's difficult to see why additional  justices would make the Supreme Court any more representative. Term limits actually limit the power of voters to decide who will represent them. A balanced budget amendment would restrict the ability of future generations to deal flexibly with crises like the current financial meltdown (and why not deficit-finance infrastructure projects, if it is intended that future generations will reap the benefits?). The line-item veto is a direct attack on representative democracy.

In making his case, Sabato, who is founder of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, is a good deal more subtle, cogent and persuasive than he comes across in outline. The reforms he suggests reflect the values he believes are already present in the Constitution: pragmatism, flexibility, fairness, the quest for equality and for justice. Whether his particular suggestions are the best ones to achieve a more perfect constitution, they are commendably thoughtful and well articulated.

Maybe, eventually, a constitutional convention will be needed to get the American experiment back on course. In the meantime, there are more limited actions -- serious campaign finance reform, an amendment to retire the electoral college, weekend voting, instant run-offs, proportional representation -- that will tend to make the system more responsive and accountable. The struggle for reform has just begun. The debate will continue. The road to go is long. A More Perfect Constitution makes a good start.

Source: "23 Proposals to Revitalize the US Constitution," from A More Perfect Constitution: Ideas to Inspire a New Generation by Larry J. Sabato.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The Constitution gives every state the power to allocate its electoral votes for president, as well as to change state law on how those votes are awarded.

The bill is currently endorsed by over 1,659 state legislators (in 48 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 29 state legislative chambers, in 19 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes -- 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


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