The Constitution of the United States ought to: (A) have a jackhammer taken to it, or (B) remain untouched by 20th-Century Americans who don't have the intelligence or foresight to rip apart the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.
Those were the two schools of thought converging on UCLA during the weekend for a critical observance of that complex document's bicentennial. Often funny, more often deadly serious, the historians, judges, political scientists and legal scholars kept an audience of about 300 enthralled as they sometimes reviled Presidents, insulted the Supreme Court and lamented the Constitution's 200th birthday as "a year of mindless genuflection" before an outdated piece of yellowed parchment. Using history and current events such as the Iran- contra scandal to make their points, panelists such as former Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James MacGregor Burns agreed that the nation is in almost constant crisis and often immobilized by constitutional gridlock on pressing issues.
Burns a Stern Critic
But there was no consensus on what to do about a variety of topics, ranging from supposedly better ways to implement democracy, to limiting presidential power, to the need--or lack of it--for a constitutional convention.
Perhaps the sternest critic of the day was Burns, who said the Constitution "has crushed the aspirations of the American people" and was crafted by men who "designed a constitution that would flout majority rule." Burns, author of acclaimed works on President Franklin D. Roosevelt and American political and intellectual history, cited what he said were long delays in the adoption of child labor laws and legal battles over slavery preceding the Civil War to support his rhetoric.
Burns also called the process of settling national policy disputes by litigation before the Supreme Court "a hell of a way to run a railroad."
Nonetheless, Burns called the Constitution "the most creative and effective act of political intellectual planning in the history of the Western world." This comment prompted UCLA law professor Murray L. Schwartz to say, "Prof. Burns called the Constitution the greatest intellectual achievement of the Western world and then proceeded to dump on it."
It was Burns, too, who said he feared most observances of the bicentennial would be uncritical, making this "a year of mindless genuflection" that does little to promote greater awareness and understanding of the Constitution. Rather than wearing Constitution-emblazoned T-shirts, Burns suggested that every American should take time to reflect on its meaning today.
"We all must be framers of the Constitution," he said. "We must all make our intellectual journeys to Philadelphia."
President and Congress
James L. Sundquist, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution and author of a book on constitutional reform, advocated amendments that he said would assure greater unity between President and Congress and give representatives a chance to pay attention to their jobs instead of fund raising for the next election. Among other things, Sundquist proposed amendments giving representatives four-year terms instead of two, senators eight-year terms instead of six and putting limits on the President's war powers. These amendments, he said, would help bypass the intent of the Founding Fathers "who clearly distrusted government and wanted to tie it in knots."
Changing the terms of congressmen also would go a long way toward reforming the electoral process and might shorten presidential campaigns, Sundquist said. He added that today's many state primaries and caucuses might have discouraged previous Presidents from seeking office. Franklin Delano Roosevelt "would not have decided he should spend 44 days in Iowa," Sundquist argued, adding that New York Gov. Mario Cuomo may have dropped out of the 1988 race partly because of this prospect. At another point, he said, "If you have five bad Presidents in a row, something might be wrong with the system."
Others, like UC Berkeley law professor Martin M. Shapiro, cautioned that the Constitution--with its checks and balances--is not itself to blame for government's frequent failure to act, or for the shortcomings of national leaders.
"When a very substantial majority of the American people agree on what they want done, it gets done," Shapiro said, citing poverty and civils rights legislation passed by Congress in the 1960s. "Now we're not sure we know how to take welfare mothers and make them into better and more productive people. We don't know how to solve crime. . . . The deadlock that we perceive in the United States . . . is a deadlock caused by our own uncertainties."
On most issues public opinion offers no clear mandate for action, Shapiro added. "Fifty-seven percent of the people believe a little bit that something should be done and 30% absolutely believe that nothing should be done," he said.