Globalist Perspective

The Need for U.S. Constitutional Reform

A country that preaches modernization to other nations does anything but that at home.

"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy. (Wikipedia)

"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy. (Wikipedia)

Takeaways


  • Constitutional reform is urgent in the United States. Without it, the U.S. will become a failed state.
  • There have been 230 state constitutional conventions since the founding of the United States.
  • If the 50 U.S. states can update their constitutions actively, why not the nation as a whole?
  • The constitution of the United States of 1787 seems to enjoy sacredness only matched by religious books.
  • Antonin Scalia has said the U.S. Constitution is “not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.”
  • All elections should be publicly funded so that the legislative body is not the best Congress money can buy.
  • Money is not free speech. It’s creating an acidic stench over the entire American body politic.
  • The smallest 25 states account for 16.3% of the U.S. population but they hold 50 of 100 seats in the Senate.
  • The US is full steam ahead to a failed state, a slight problem for the most powerful nation on earth.

If anything, the chronic re-occurrence of the U.S. government’s failure to approve a budget as well as the repetitive quarrel over raising the country’s debt ceiling demonstrate one thing clearly: Constitutional reform is the priority in the United States. Without it, the U.S. will indeed become a failed state.

Such reform should not be difficult. At the U.S. state level there have been 230 constitutional conventions since the founding of the country, according to Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas and author of Our Undemocratic Constitution. The State of New York is currently on its fifth constitution. If the 50 states can do it, why not the nation as a whole?

Other countries, too, have a record of frequently changing or adopting new versions of their constitutions. In contrast, the constitution of the United States of 1787 seems to enjoy a sacredness only matched by some religious books.

The last change to the U.S. Constitution, the 27th Amendment, was approved in 1992. Hard though it may be to believe, it dealt with the oh-so critical issue of increases in salary for members of the U.S. Congress not taking effect until the term following the increase.

How much more myopic can one get? Maybe the country should have saved its action-oriented powder for something more earthshaking.

The Constitution: dead or alive?

Nobody seems to remember that the U.S. Constitution was a highly controversial document as it was being drafted. The so-called Federalist Papers are living proof. And that was at a time when there were only 13 states in the union.

The fact that the U.S. Constitution has only been changed 27 times since 1787, which was almost 100 years before Thomas Edison turned on the lights, shows how stale and out-of-date a reference point it has become.

In other words, the rest of the living world has changed significantly. But, as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been quoted as saying approvingly, the U.S. Constitution is “not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.”

Of course, Justice Scalia is not suggesting that the meaning of the Constitution is dead, but that it should be interpreted exactly as written by the Founding Fathers. He views them as omniscient, even though they had not seen a light bulb, a car, a plane, a space ship, a computer, a 3D printer or a female Supreme Court Justice, for that matter.

Scalia’s view of the Constitution, also dubbed strict constructionism suits his political purposes as a paleo-conservative. Consequently, he has no qualms with expanding the “right to bear arms” to semi-automatic weapons rather than limiting it to muskets existing at the times of the Founding Fathers.

And, naturally, Justice Scalia had no patience to read the entire Second Amendment which states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Well, guess what? Just like we have don’t have slavery anymore, we also don’t have state militias.

Urgent need for constitutional reform

All this goes to say is: The United States urgently needs constitutional reform. What key changes would need to be made?

Starting with Scalia and his colleagues, the terms of justices to the Supreme Court should be limited to one term of about 10 years, enough to establish a record, without allowing individuals to create a “legacy” all the way to the graveyard. Of course, the nine Justices’ terms would be staggered so that no President would appoint more than two.

All elections in the country would be publicly funded to make sure the country is a true democracy and not a place where the legislative body is described as “the best Congress money can buy.” Thus, all direct or indirect campaign contributions would be explicitly prohibited.

Money, after all, is not free speech. It’s creating an acidic stench over the entire American body politic.

The non-democratic Electoral College would be eliminated, since it can lead – and has led – to the election of four Presidents without support from the majority of the American people (the last one, President George W. Bush in his first term).

How can it get more undemocratic?

All Senators should be elected every six years, with half being elected during the year of presidential elections and half three years thereafter. The Senate should be composed according to size of population in each state following every ten-year census.

According to the 2010 census, the smallest 25 states of the union account for 16.3% of the U.S. population. In contrast, they hold 50 of 100 seats in the Senate. More specifically, a Senator from Wyoming represents some 282,000 people, while a Senator from California represents 66 times as many or 18.7 million. It does not get more undemocratic than that.

All Members of the House should serve four-year terms. The current system leads to permanent campaigning with little substantive legislative work done. All Members of the House should be elected concurrently.

Every ten years, the district maps in each state should be drawn by a committee of regional representatives from the other 49 states. This would end gerrymandering.

A more perfectly representative union

In electing the House of Representatives, a system akin to that of Germany should be adopted. Americans should have a first and second vote. The first vote would be cast for the party voters prefer, while the second vote would be cast for the specific candidates running for office in each district.

Representation in the House should be based on the number of seats equivalent to each party’s share of votes received in the first vote, while – at the same time – all directly elected candidates would be guaranteed their seats in the House.

That system would make the U.S. a more representative democracy, while allowing for a candidate’s close relationship with his/her district to be rewarded. This will also most likely lead to a break-up of the antiquated two-party system.

The new constitution would also provide that there would be no discretion for either chamber to introduce special voting rules, such as the Senate’s filibuster. All votes would require a simple majority vote, except in such cases as the removal of the President and change of the constitution.

The legislative process should be streamlined by prohibiting all riders or earmarks on any bills. All bills should deal with the subject matter at hand. This way Congress would look at the benefit of a bill rather than being sidetracked by unrelated issues.

Budgeting that works – or else

Borrowing a little from the Israeli law, a budget should be required each year. Failing such approval, the budget of the first month following the previous budget should be equal to the first month of that previous budget.

Should Congress fail to approve a new budget by the fourth month, new elections for Members of the House of Representatives should be held by the sixth month of the ongoing budget year. This would surely get the attention of lawmakers.

A change of the new constitution should simply require two/thirds in both chambers of Congress with no additional involvement of the states.

Of course, it is unthinkable that the United States would do what its states have done 230 times, i.e., to call a constitutional convention to design a modern framework of governance. This would require two-thirds of the states to agree.
Amending the current constitution is also nearly impossible as it demands a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress as well as the approval by 38 states.

In both instances, it is especially the deep-seated belief in American Exceptionalism that leads to inaction.

And so I guess in the United States, we are full steam ahead to a failed state, a slight problem for the most powerful nation on earth.

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About Uwe Bott

Uwe Bott is the Chief Economist of The Globalist Research Center.

  • bhumphreyTG

    I agree that some fundamental constitutional reforms would be ideal to facilitate a more modern and better functioning government but there are always drawbacks to any suggested changes.

    For example, this Supreme Court proposal would likely result in justices resigning early to stack the court under a favorable president. And it doesn’t account for the possibility of a death in office. Plus, the only way to guarantee no more than two appointments per president on a normal cycle (without resignations and death) would be to limit to one per four-year presidential term. So, arithmetically you couldn’t space nine nominations over four year presidential terms and still have ten-year SCOTUS terms. Your fourth justice’s term wouldn’t even have started by the time the first justice’s ten year term expired.

    The Senate proposal here would result in half the Senate seats permanently being out of sync with the presidential elections (and in an odd year with very low turnout on top of that) and the other half syncing up every 12 years.

    In a ban on riders, who would determine relevance of an amendment? An unelected Senate Parliamentarian (as is currently used capriciously on Byrd Rule rulings over the deficit impact of ombnibus bills to determine if a supermajority can be skipped)? In the early 2000s, Senate Republicans simply fired the parliamentarian for refusing to rule that the Bush Tax cuts would reduce the deficit, so as to be able to vote it through on a simple majority.

  • Finn Nielsen

    The most important reform would be to require some type of proportional representation in congressional elections. Today, the system is subverted by computer technology that produces gerrymandered maps at the press of a button. Whoever runs the computer mapping system can predetermine the outcome of elections on a state basis. Proportional representation would eliminate such undemocratic outcomes.

  • ubott

    I agree and I have attempted to address that in my proposals. I have tried to put it into the context of what people should be able to politically agree upon, if they acted rationally. Of course, we all know that that is a stretch.

  • William

    The reasons cited for Constitutional reform at the beginning of the article would resolve themselves if Wash DC would adhere to the existing Constitutional dictates.
    Any ‘reform’ of our Constitution should come from the 50 States – not the Congress.

  • slackdammit

    Do you suppose this revolution could be accomplished without firing a shot?

  • Edward John George Gerety

    Agreed

  • Landers

    Gerrymandering has been going on since early 1800s — started by a Democrat. No computer required. And you think — 200 years later — that it’s a big, new problem for America? Both parties do it. This is trivial stuff.

  • Finn Nielsen

    It is quite irrelevant whether one party does it, or both. It is also irrelevant how long it has been practiced, whether it is a new or an old problem. There is no need to trivialize the problem! Gerrymandering is fundamentally an undemocratic process, both then and now. With computers, any half brained bureaucrat can do the job with great accuracy – and that was not always possible. Should we let the practice continue, just because it has gone on for a long time? Or because both parties are guilty?

  • Finn Nielsen

    There is an excellent book, relevant to this topic. “Republic Lost” by Larry Lessig treats the subject of constitutional reform thoroughly.

  • 20eric

    What an apt saying, America is saddled with a
    horse and buggy constitution! Can’t see that changing soon looking at the
    simple act of trying and continuously failing to introduce a modern measurement
    system since 1866 in that politically corrupt and educationally backward country.

  • Cinclow20

    Of course gerrymandering is a problem — indeed, along with the perverting influence of money, it is one of the two greatest challenges to the American political system. We can see the result most clearly in the 2012 election, in which Democratic congressional candidates won 1.5 million more votes than their Republican opponents, yet Republicans won a large majority of the seats. In fact, it has been said that due to gerrymandering, it would require a majority vote in the range of 70% to enable the Democrats to secure a majority of a house seats.

    So this is how a minority party, largely from one region of the country, has been enable to effectively impose its will (or at least negate the will) of a majority of Americans. How is that ‘trivial stuff?”

  • Cinclow20

    The problem with these proposals is they go too far in suppressing the influence of the individual states. Mr. Bott, having grown up in a smaller, more homogenous country, may be less sensitive to the challenges of governing a country as large and heterogeneous as the U.S. Providing for proportional representation in the senate, and eliminating the states’ role in amending the constitution would be, at least at this point in time, “a bridge too far” in reforming our currently dysfunctional governance system.

    Even more to the point, if his other less revolutionary proposals were enacted, together with the critical reform of reducing the influence of money in elections, they’d probably be enough to ensure that the federal government was made both more democratic in reflecting the majority’s will, and more efficient in carrying it out.

  • jdirtNOW

    dear europe: yeah… we know… it’s a mess, and we know it’s a mess, but what are we supposed to do? stop? you gotta understand, it doesn’t work like that. people kinda like it this way, and a bunch of people we’re supposed to revere kinda put in a little bit of effort a long time ago. they used to have slaves, now they’re tax farmers, and they kinda really need-want things to stay this way, and they control the government, so you’re stuck with it the same way we are. it should be a hoot watching it fall apart, eventually, so in the meantime do what we do: get yours.