Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Updating the Constitution?

I learn from this column in my dad’s Sunday paper that political prognosticator extraordinaire Larry Sabato has a new book forthcoming this fall. In it, he offers 23 proposals for changing the Constitution.

Every fiber of my being protests in general against such a project, but I’ll try to keep an open mind as I consider his argument for amendments like the following:

• Because each state, regardless of population, elects two of the 100 senators, just 17 percent of the nation’s population elects a majority of the Senate. Sabato would expand the Senate by giving the 10 most populous states two additional senators, the next 15 most populous states one new senator and the District of Columbia its first senator.


• Expand the U.S. House to about 1,000 members (from the present 435) so representatives could be closer to the voters.


• Establish term limits for members of Congress to restore the principle of frequent rotation in office.


• Add a Balanced Budget Amendment to avoid burdening future taxpayers with an enormous debt.


• Establish a single, six-year term for presidents, but give them the option of requesting an additional two years. Voters would grant or deny it in an unopposed, yes-or-no election.


• Give the president a line-item veto.


• Eliminate lifetime tenure for federal judges and replace it with nonrenewable 15-year terms.

• Create a constitutional mandate that all able-bodied young Americans must devote at least two years to national service of some sort.

Sabato wants to start a national conversation. Let’s join him.

Discussions - 22 Comments

In any event, no changes to the constitution should be done in any manner other than the specified amendment process. The notion of a "constitutional convention" to craft a "new" constitution is horribly misguided.

Some of Sabato's suggestions are worth talking about: term limits, single six year term for president, line item veto, 15 year term on federal judges. The idea of giving the more populous states more senators is just foolish. The senate is intentionally designed to offer smaller states some power equality with bigger states. It's working fine. It doesn't need tinkering with.

The 1000 or more representatives is also foolish. I see nothing that 1000 representative can do better than 435. Beyond a certain number more is just more, not better.

Sabato has a tendency sometimes to think himself smarter than he is.

(1)Obviously rearranging the Senate will never happen, because incumbents aren't going to dilute their power by adding more members. Small state incumbents have two reasons for not doing so. And besides, I trust the voters of Kansas, South Dakota, and wyoming more than I do the voters of Calfiornia and New York. Given a choice, I'd rather have voters form those states running the country.

Small state senators may represent fewer people, but because they need less money to finance their campaigns they also represent fewer special interests.

But if we're going to adjust the Senate for population, why not just get rid of it altogether, or at least create Senate districts, same as the House? Because in large states (and even medium sized ones) the seats are already so large that it takes tens of millions to run a campaign. That's why the Senate is so out of touch to begin with.

(2) Expanding the House is a good idea, but I'm not sure people would pay any more attention than they do now. My state house districts cover only about 33,000 people, but I'm not sure people pay any more attention to them because they're smaller. Probably fewer people can name their state house member than their US House member. (Of course, people pay more attention to national politics in general than to local politics.)

And, once again, why would House members vote to dilute their power? The real problem is that House districts today are all very efficiently gerrymandered. That is THE biggest issue to be dealt with, and could be dealt with on a state-by-state level, but Sabato didn't mention it. We need some mathematical solution to drawing political districts that is completely nonpartisan.

The other issue is financing. As it stands, any one individual is able to contribute about $30,000 to political campaigns every 2 years. How many people can contribute that much?

National politics is dominated by labor unions and businesses. Local politics is dominated by real estate. We need to encourage more average people to contribute to campaigns on their own - perhaps a matching contribution up to only about $200 a year. You give $200 to a candidate - ANY candidate - and the government matches it. Then lower the top amount to 10-15,000 from 30,000

Under that situation I think more peopel would contribute, but I may be naive.

(3) Term limits? I'm with him.

(4) Balanced Budget Amendment? Ditto.

(5)An add-on two-year term for president? It would quickly devolve into a full-fledged campaign like any other, and besides that you would then be dealing with two back-to-back campaigns if he loses. Very annoying. Stick with the current system.

(6) A line-item veto gives the president too much power. He already has a veto - let him use it.

(7)I've never understood the concept of lifetime tenure. It sounds way too much like "President for Life." Judicial arrogance mystifies believe. Their terms should be even shorter than 15 years -- why not 10? But they should be renewable. Anyone who does a good job on the bench should have a chance to keep their job.

It should also be explicitly stated that Congress and the President can override a judicial veto of a law. Why are 9 judges less likely to abuse their power than 535 members of Congress? Tell me, please.

(8) Military service or nothin'. The sacrifices of military service are inordinately greater than the sacrifices made spending 2 years in Santa Monica teaching poor kids to read. (Instead of being full time, you could as easily make it duty in the Guard or Reserves.) And I have no problem restricting it to men only.

(1) and (2) = silly. Ditto Don. I also agree with Craig that gerrymandering has become a partisan staple that needs to be dealt with.



(3) I hate term limits. When you give a guy term limits, he typically doesn't care about popular opinion during his last term (thereby causing some problems for people who enjoy be adequately represented). Why listen to constituents when they can't elect you anymore? If a Congressman rocks at being a Congressman, let him do his thing.



(4) I'm not an economist, so I don't really like to act like I know how a "Balanced Budget Act" would help or hurt the deficit, but it sounds nice.



(5) I like the six-year thing. A President really can't do much in his last two years (even if he knows they are his last due to term limits) except try to sway popular opinion and influence a bit of legislation. With the two-year add-on hanging over his head for the first six, I think it could bring some new accountability to two years (first two of the second term) the President doesn't really have to have any right now. Although I feel Craig's pain. Elections could become annoying (and what exactly happens should he not be approved for two more years? an election? For six years? Or for two?). That might be a bit more solid in the book, though.



(6) No thanks.



(7) I hate electing judges. Or renewable terms for them, in general. I understand everyone's problem with some of the crazies currently sitting on the bench, but if we start to elect them then their decisions won't be about what they think is "right" or "just", it'll be about what can get them another term. I don't like that much.



(8) I don't know about this. I don't like the idea of people being forced to serve (as pragmatically helpful as that could be), but I certainly don't think military service should be the only option. Some people don't want to be trained to kill other people and take orders without thinking about them. We definitely need people that will do those things, but I worry about destroying particular types of people (the complete and utter civilian) if military service were required. I think it would be (for practical purposes) wonderful if everyone had to work as some menial laborer (or military serviceman) so that everyone could know just how crappy that kind of work is (Simone Weil would love that . . . as would Edward Bellamy - he wrote a whole book about it). Maybe such work would help to destroy some of the social/economic tension between Mr. Surgeon and Mr. Factory Worker. Again, though, I'm not sure I like the idea of the government mandating how people spend their first few years of occupation. Experience will help to determine who these people become, and I'm not sure I want the government playing such a big hand in that.

I'm surprised at Sabato. There's too much in here that messes with important principles like federalism and states in the Senate, which Sabato should know better. There are also items here that were considered by the Founders and rejected at the Constitutional Convention and do not need change. I am willing to do a few things like increase the numbers of reps. that don't mess with either of the above two. Some are just plain stupid. "Mandated" public service? Oxymoron? If no public spirit exists, can we force one on people? The same with the balanced budget amendment. According to republican ideology, a self-governing people must avoid vices like debt. This should not be legislated or revised constitutionally, but should be the sound policy of a virtuous people. If people would give up their addiction to the welfare state, then we would not have this problem.

Oops. I meant "military service should not be the only option." My bad.

Crap! It sounded fine the way it was. Erg. I'm leaving now.

Matt, I'd at least like to give individual states the option of term-limits. Let the voters see how well they work.

In regards to the Senate, I didn't much consider the federalism issue because, as far as I'm concerned, federalism is dead. A Republican president signing off on NCLB didn'y help it. I would like it back, but that's neither here nor there.

And Sabato wasn't suggesting electing judges. He was just limiting the terms of appointment.

Craig - Oh. I thought I saw electing judges in there somewhere. Oh well. I still don't like the idea of a judge's rulings being contingent on the happiness of some higher power (be it the people, the Great Decider, or a different appointer).



I could see giving states term-limit options. I'd much rather see that than something at the federal level.

Re : judges.

if we start to elect them then their decisions won't be about what they think is "right" or "just

Their decisions are not supposed be about what is "right" or "just", and a large part of the problem is that they have increasingly taken this role on themselves. They are supposed to read the law as written and apply it. Period. No latitude is given them to engage in flights of fancy about what they consider right and just.

Sabato is the left-wing moonbat who cooperated in the smear campaign against George Allen. Keep that in mind while considering his helpful suggestions for creating a new Constitution.

It would be nice if this Constitutional expert showed some awareness that the Senate does not exist to represent "the people", but the individual states which make up the Union.

Their decisions are not supposed be about what is "right" or "just", and a large part of the problem is that they have increasingly taken this role on themselves. They are supposed to read the law as written and apply it. Period. No latitude is given them to engage in flights of fancy about what they consider right and just.



Alright. Point taken. But still . . . influence or pressure from the higher-ups who would continually need to appoint judges would almost certainly play a role in how a judge would interpret the law (or, "read and apply" the law).

John wrote: "It would be nice if this Constitutional expert showed some awareness that the Senate does not exist to represent "the people", but the individual states which make up the Union."

Amen. I'll take it further -- the Senate exists to represent the union as a whole and to act as a deliberative body that keeps the interests of the union in balance with the passions of the people. Of course, the senators themselves forget that ... the petty, vain people that they are.

I recall Senator Clinton bemoaning how the state of New York paid out more money in federal taxes than it received in federal benefits. She decried that as an indication of some form of "unfairness," I suppose. I waited for some conservatives to comment on the enormous gaffe she'd committed, but heard nothing. By claiming that, she essentially dismissed the whole notion of "income redistribution." If New York paying to subsidize Mississippi is wrong, then why is it not equally wrong for me in Arizona to pay federal taxes to support a poor person in New York?

John also wrote: "Sabato is the left-wing moonbat..."

Left wing for sure ... "moonbat" might be a bit harsh. But to brand Sabato as an objective commentator on things politic is just not right. He may predict certain election outcomes, but that doesn't make him qualified to offer suggestions for radical change and for us to accept them as neutral and unbiased.

To keep it positive: The six-year term for presidents (especially if extendable for two years) and the line-item veto both make a lot of sense.

In any event, no changes to the constitution should be done in any manner other than the specified amendment process. The notion of a "constitutional convention" to craft a "new" constitution is horribly misguided.

There is a consitutional provision which requires the convocation of a constitutional convention if a threshhold of states (2/3 or 3/4, I forget) petition for it.


• Because each state, regardless of population, elects two of the 100 senators, just 17 percent of the nation’s population elects a majority of the Senate. Sabato would expand the Senate by giving the 10 most populous states two additional senators, the next 15 most populous states one new senator and the District of Columbia its first senator.


I suggest the District of Columbia be retroceded to Maryland; the Senate be composed of one member per state; that each state delegation of the House of Representatives would caucus upon the convocation of a new Congress and designate one among their number the Senator for that state; that in case of a tie, the decision would repair to the state Governor; that Senators retain their voting rights in the House of Representatives; that legislative power (including the ratification of treaties) be held in full by the House of Representatives; and that the Senate be given the task of vetting administrative rules and regulations, issuing letters of marque and reprisal, and serving as a consultative body to the Executive.


• Expand the U.S. House to about 1,000 members (from the present 435) so representatives could be closer to the voters.

I doubt they can be all that 'close' with constituencies contatining 300,000 residents. One might surmise the utility of local constituencies represented by people who actually are residents of an area (and in the American practice, generally quite rooted) is that our legislature is drawn from parochial political elites and is thus more variegated and reflective of ground-level concerns than would be the case if we followed the British or Canadian practice of the party leadership scattering centrally-selected candidates to constituencies according to the convenience of said leadership.

Would it be less arbitrary to adopt the rule that the legislature is to be in size equal to the cube-root of the citizen population than to declare 435 a magic number?

• Establish term limits for members of Congress to restore the principle of frequent rotation in office.

Suggest enforced rotation in office, whereby a representative could serve eight years in any ten consecutive years. This would allow local populations to return selected individuals to office without such officies degenerating into properties due to the effects of incumbency on the dynamic of elections. It would also allow for experimentation with electoral forms other than the single-member district (perpetual entrenchment being a bane of PR systems).

Suggest also that an amendment declare that one must have reached the age of forty to hold any elective office at any level, and that civil servants and members of the Bar be prohibited from holding seats in the legislature. Many years ago a clerk employed by the Appellate Division in hearabouts offered this thought, "the law tends to be heavily weighted toward attorneys, because attorneys write the law" (except when the legislature is a subsidiary of the public empolyee unions). I cannot imagine we would be worse off by insisting our politicians be people who have had a long run at working some other trade.

• Add a Balanced Budget Amendment to avoid burdening future taxpayers with an enormous debt.

Find an economist who will endorse this turkey.


• Establish a single, six-year term for presidents, but give them the option of requesting an additional two years. Voters would grant or deny it in an unopposed, yes-or-no election.

Suggest that the President be elected by ballots of the state legislatures (or more particular bodies) meeting separately; that executive power repair to the President in the absence of a duly constituted parliamentary ministry; that the President be a minimum of 62 years of age. An alternative suggestion for the head of state: King Charles III.

• Give the president a line-item veto.

Abolish the veto. Why not also abolish the requirement of legislative approval of executive appointments?

• Eliminate lifetime tenure for federal judges and replace it with nonrenewable 15-year terms.

At the very least, vest the power to advise and consent to federal judicial appointments in the state legislatures; have judges so appointed subject to decennial plebicites; allow legislatures to interpellate judges as they do executive officials; put language in the constitution to constrain judicial review.


• Create a constitutional mandate that all able-bodied young Americans must devote at least two years to national service of some sort.

We should remember that CETA employees in California busied themselves, faux de mieux, with a dog and cat census.

We might also consider...

1. Replacing single-member districts with multi-member districts (following county and municipal boundaries) with seats distributed by an Australian-type alternate vote. This might go far toward ameliorating the problem of gerrymandering.

2. Reconstituting political parties as private membership organizations.

3. Partial public financing of elections, (with funds to be distributed to state parties?), and aught but disclosure rules regulating private financing. A study of the Italian and Israeli experience with public financing of political parties might be instructive here.

The only unpassed amendment in the origninal 12 Bill of Rights amendments would have made the House of Representatives grow proportionally with the nation. I think this is an excellent idea and would take Sabato one step further and say that the House should have 1500 members.

Joe, it is a mistake to "join a conversation" on amending the Constitution umpteen ways. "Creating conversation" is the left's favorite tactic in undermining institutions and practices that have been supported for years because they have been accepted "without question."

By no means does this imply however that the Const. should never be amended. But Sabato's proposal is near to saying let's start over.

Notice for example that the one amendment worth considering right now -- banning same-sex marriage -- isn't even mentioned!

I would add that I actually FAVOR a constitutional convention to accomplish this specific change. I have a lot less fear of a popular convention than I do of Congress proposing constitutional changes.

No, I will not countenance starting over.

NEVER!

The demise of the United States Constitution will mean, in my opinion, the demise of freedom for mankind.

Yeah, I am a throwback, but, it appears, I not only have history generally on my side, but I have present events on my side.

Show me anything today that even resembles the simple eloquence of the U.S. Constitution.

You can't.

The EU is the perfect example.

That thing is a monster compared to our Constituion.

Why?

Our lack of traditional liberal education (modern liberalism is more akin to totalitarianism than anyting else)

Today's education is more about job attainment than anything else.

So, stop the talk about ditching the Constitution. Sure, enhance it via the supplied mechanisms, but shit can it? NO!

Dr. Sabato knows--doesn't he?--that the equal representation of the states in the Senate is THE ONE non-amendable feature of the Constitution, protected by article V. Of course, the article allows for the possibility, that, out the goodness of their hearts, the people of Wyoming might simply give up its equal suffrage. Maybe some legal expert knows something I don't--on this subject, unlikely, as it simply never has been tested judicially or otherwise--but the plain reading of the text indicates you would have to have full-on overthrow of the Constitution to change this feature of article V. Given approval by simple majorities (Art. IV, sect. 3) in the two houses of Congress larger states may split into smaller states, which of course would grant their populations greater Senatorial representation. Although there could be a problem in that any small state could then make a powerful case that they have been "denied equal suffrage" without their consent. Not sure why this objection did not arise when West Va went it's way, but you'd better believe it'd be made these days. And besides, given the likely vote of self-defense in the Senate, it's unlikely any self-splitting state could win approval from others. Finally, such self-splitting would mean significant economic pain (talk about "reinventing govt!") for the state that did so.

Nope, our Constitution isn't perfect. It was the result of compromise, and the "never shall amend this" provision in article V is arguably one of its biggest flaws, that with time, is only going to become more glaring. If you want to see why the equal Senate suffrage is a real injustice, a compromise Madison and others VERY RELUCTANTLY made to the pip-squeak states, there is a book called Sizing Up the Senate by Lee and Oppenheimer that breaks it down for ya. And I give all this to you as an aggrieved my-heart-is-still-with California kinda guy.

But unlike Dr. Sabato, I don't presume to mess with the reverence Americans have for their Constitution. The radicality of the means necessary to get his (and my) preferred end, the repeal of equal Senate suffrage, utterly outweigh its value. Unless he explains this in his book at some length, then he is being very irresponsible, albeit in a Jeffersonian sort of way, something which goes a long way down here at UVA. I'll ask him about it if I see him.

Also, Dennis is basically right, but Joe knows that given Sabato's profile, this conversation might become hard to ignore, and may on a number of points require swift and well-informed rebuke by defenders of American Constitutionalism.

Yes, of course there can come a time when there is no choice but to participate in the conversation. But as far as I can see, there ain't no conversation or interest in any of these ideas, above all any tampering with the Senate.
If the conversation were to begin about that, of course we'd have to promote restoring the original Senate chosen by state legislatures, the reform of which has played an important part in the decline of the Republic.
We should also not mistake academic buzzing for popular conversation. Ignore the academics (with apologies to our academic friends on this blogsite, who know how few and far between they are.)
Amending the Constitution is a very, very difficult thing to do -- and bless Americans for that stubbornness. I would do nothing to tamper with it unless it's already ongoing and/or the reform is essential.
BTW, another amendment talked about and voted on most lately is the flag-burning amendment...and where is that one on Sabato's list???

As far as congressional term limits are concerned, there will be no serious discussion since the public quite rightly understands the impossibility of success from proposals thus far advanced.

To get the Washington scoundrels out of Office and to curtail the influence of their masters will take ingenuity and dedication; the ruling minority has had many decades to rig the political
process.

Despite the enormous resources leveraged against the people by the wealthy minority, there is a remedy to the costly corruption represented by the duopoly Democrat/Republican party. Here is an idea that does not require time or resources. There are no financial contributions to be made no meetings to attend no speeches to endure. Citizens need only join the One Term and Out movement by making the pledge then spreading the word.

The One Term and Out Pledge:

“With the recognition that there are huge numbers of intelligent, talented and qualified citizens who are prepared to limit their public service to one term, I hereby pledge that I will not vote a second term for any United States Senator or United States Congressman.”

Matt Mingus:

"If a Congressman rocks at being a Congressman, let him do his thing."

Name five congressmen who "rock."

*crickets chirp* *tumbleweeds roll by* *mountains are ground down* *stars burn out* *gallaxies collide* *the universe collapses into a hyper-super-massive black hole*

What other than term limits could possibly cure the malignant "incumbent melanoma" that currently festers on the hide of America?

That said, the idea of having more Senators totally ruins the intent of the founders to balance the interests of the less populated states against those of the more populous. It's idiocy, but it would - technically - be more "democratic." Problem is, democracy is idiotic. A representative republic is about as good a system as man can devise.

Q: What is the difference between despotism and democracy?

A: With despotism, only one idiot is in charge, while with democracy, all of the idiots are in charge.

Witness the current congress for anecdotal proof.

What I'd like to see is a constitutional ammendment that would disqualify anyone with a law degree from serving in any capacity - including advisory - in the legislative branch: Lawyers making law is a conflict of interest, as they will make laws that benefit lawyers at the expence of the genaral populace. Do I really need to cite evidence of that?

I'd do the same for lawyers and judges: No lawyer-judge will make a ruling that adversely affects the legal profession, even if it is in the best interests of the citizenry, so don't allow lawyers to be judges.

I think a high school senior with a valid moral compass could be a judge in just about any courtroom in the land. I mean, how hard can it be to listen to a couple of lawyers battling it out and come to a righteous decision? Law isn't rocket science. Hell, it isn't even algebra.

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