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We need a new Constitution

The nation has changed since 1787. The founding document has to catch up.

October 10, 2007|Larry J. Sabato | Larry J. Sabato is the author of "A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country." He directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

The presidential candidates are offering prescriptions for everything from Iraq to healthcare, but listen closely. Their fixes are situational and incremental. Meanwhile, the underlying structural problems in American politics and government are systemic and prevent us from solving our most intractable challenges.

If we really want to make progress and achieve greater fairness as a society, it is time for elemental change. And we should start by looking at the Constitution, with the goal of holding a new Constitutional Convention.

Sound radical? If so, then the founders were radicals. They would be amazed and disappointed that after 220 years, the inheritors of their Constitution had not tried to adapt to new developments that the founders could never have anticipated in Philadelphia in 1787.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, insisted that "no society can make a perpetual Constitution. ... The Earth belongs always to the living generation. ... Every Constitution ... naturally expires at the end of 19 years" (the length of a generation in Jefferson's time).

The Constitution remains brilliant in its overall design and sound with respect to the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers. But there are numerous archaic provisions that inhibit constructive change and adaptation. These constitutional bits affect the daily life of the republic and every citizen in it. A few examples:

* Restoring the war powers balance. The framers split authority concerning matters of war-making between the president (commander in chief) and Congress (declaring war). Does anyone seriously believe that they would have approved of the executive department waging years-long wars without the explicit approval of the legislature? Yet the advantages accruing to any president -- the unitary nature of the office, the swift action that only he can take in a hair-trigger world, his dominance of the televised public forum -- have created an emperor as much as a president. The constitutional balance of shared war-making must be restored.

The president should have the freedom to commit troops for up to six months, under procedures similar to that of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. But a new constitutional amendment should require that after six months -- and every six months thereafter -- both houses of Congress, by affirmative vote and without filibusters, would have to approve any extension. If one house votes no on extending, all combat troops must be withdrawn within a year.

This is an institutional reform, not a partisan attack on George W. Bush. Harry Truman on Korea and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon on Vietnam were every bit as stubborn as Bush has been on Iraq. It is in the nature of the single-minded, victory-insistent presidential beast.

* Creating a more representative Senate. Stunningly, just 17% of the current American population elects a majority of the U.S. Senate. This is because even though California has about 70 times the population of Wyoming, both states get two U.S. senators. The larger states may have 83% of the nation's people, but they get nothing without the approval of the lightly populated states. In the beginning of the republic, the population differential between the large and small states -- and thus the unfairness -- was far less.

But today, the structure of the upper chamber of Congress is completely outmoded. Let's build a fairer Senate by granting the 10 states with the greatest population two additional senators each, and the next 15 most populated states one additional senator each.

* Transforming presidential elections. Americans don't have to be convinced that our presidential election system is broken. The nation needs a sensible system of rotating regional primaries so that it would no longer be subject to the selfish whims of a few states.

The electoral college also must be overhauled, with more populated states receiving additional electors so that a candidate who loses the popular vote can no longer become president. Why not abolish it entirely? The state-based electoral college isolates and simplifies recounts. Imagine how hopeless our predicament would be if the 2000 Florida recount had to be conducted nationwide.

* Ending second-class citizenship. We promote the cultural myth that any mother's son or daughter can grow up to be president, but it isn't even literally true.

The founders were concerned about foreign intrigue in the early days of an unsettled republic, so they limited the presidency to those who were "natural born" citizens. But the melting pot that is now the United States includes an astonishing 14.4 million Americans who were not born on U.S. soil and are therefore ineligible for the presidency -- a number sure to grow substantially. Among them are 30,000 members of the U.S. armed forces who risk life and limb to defend those enjoying first-class citizenship.

Any American who has been a citizen for at least 20 years should have the right to aspire to the White House.

I have barely scratched the surface in identifying long-delayed constitutional reforms. No thoughtful person will rush to change the Constitution, and it will take many years of work. But let the debate begin, and let us start the process that will lead to a 21st century Constitutional Convention.

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