Thursday, September 17, 2009

Time for a New Constitutional Convention?

It's September 17. Happy Constitution Day!

Thomas Jefferson personally celebrated just two holidays: New Year's Day and Independence Day. He also didn't believe it was the business of the federal government to officially proclaim official holidays, or days of observance of any sort. Still, September 17 was the day that the men of the Constitutional Convention signed the document, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should set aside a few moments to reflect on just how important the Constitution is.

The fact that 55 flawed men could craft such a brilliant intellectual achievement as the United States Constitution almost defies belief. The further fact that it has continued to function, almost unchanged, for more than two hundred years simply seems miraculous. Observers of the time, Jefferson included, would have been astounded. Certainly it is the most successful written constitution in the history of the world.

But it's not a perfect document, by any means. The Electoral College is archaic and should be thrown away, the term "high crimes and misdemeanors" needs to be clarified, Supreme Court justices shouldn't serve for life, and there are other problems. And while many constitutional problems within our current system, such as the overwhelming superiority of the Executive Branch, are not the fault of the Constitution itself but rather our flawed interpretation of it, they could be solved were the wording of the document somewhat different.

Jefferson was not involved in the creation of the Constitution, as he was then serving as the American Minister to France. Madison sent a copy of it immediately after it was made public, and Jefferson didn't much like it at first. He objected specifically to the lack of a bill of rights and the lack of presidential term limits. The first was corrected almost immediately, thanks to James Madison steering the Bill of Rights through the First Congress. The second was largely corrected by Washington's decision to step down after two terms, thus creating a firm tradition of serving only two terms that wouldn't be broken until Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. It was permanently solved by the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

Jefferson also believed that a new constitutional convention should be held every twenty years or so, as he felt no generation should have to live under a constitution it had had no role in crafting. Jefferson would be very surprised and disappointed to learn that, over two centuries, the American people would only amend the Constitution twenty-seven times. Were he alive today, he would be calling for an immediate constitutional convention, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should do the same.

Larry Sabato, one of the most respected political commentators in our time, has authored a wonderful book entitled A More Perfect Constitution. The book lays out 23 proposed amendments to the Constitution that would essentially update it for the 21st Century. Among the proposals Sabato lays out, which Jeffersonians should support, are:
  • A Balanced Budget Amendment
  • Nonpartisan redistricting of congressional districts
  • Term limits for members of Congress
  • Giving the President a line-item veto
  • Limiting Presidential war powers
  • Abolishing life tenure for Supreme Court Justices in favor a single, 15-year terms
There are many other interesting proposals and Sabato's book is highly-recommended for all 21st Century Jeffersonians.

There are many aspects of our modern system of American government that are fundamentally anti-Jeffersonian and need to be corrected. Human nature being what it is, we cannot expect the members of Congress to pass the needed amendments, no matter how much political pressure may be brought to bear. It will likely be only slightly easier to make use of the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, which state that a constitutional convention will be assembled if two-thirds of the states (34 states, in other words) call for one. Either would take many long years of intense lobbying and campaigning, involving substantial grassroots organizing on the part of 21st Century Jeffersonians. And there would be no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Still, the fact that it will be difficult is no excuse not to try. At the very least, it will be easier than the task the Founding Fathers faced in 1776.

1 comment:

B3 said...

More good stuff. How do we get the convention going?