Saturday, September 17, 2011

Time for a New Constitutional Convention?

It was today, 224 years ago, that the Constitutional Convention completed its work and set out the glorious document which created our system of government. 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. 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.

Thomas Jefferson was not involved in the writing of the Constitution, as he was then serving as a diplomat in Europe. But he followed the process closely and, as it turned out, did not entirely approve of the final version of the document. More fundamentally, Jefferson also believed that a new constitutional convention should be held every twenty years, 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. Perhaps we should follow his lead.

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 are certainly worthy of attention 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 anyone who cares about these issues.

There are many aspects of our modern system of American government that are fundamentally anti-democratic 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 citizens of good will around the country. 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. I urge those who see the wisdom and necessity of considering new constitutional amendments to learn more about the use of the Article V convention option at the website of Friends of the Article V Convention: The national nonpartisan group does not advocate for specific amendments, only compelling Congress to obey the Constitution and call the first convention.

  2. The author fails to mention a critical fact regarding the Article V Convention. The public record shows that 49 states have submitted over 700 applications for a convention call, well in excess of the 34 required by the Constitution. The applications can be read at

    The fact the convention is now currently mandated should be discussed in light of the author's contention of requiring "years" of effort. In fact, as the public record shows, the states have already applied long ago and thus the "years" of work is already done. The author does a disservice to his readers not informing them of this key fact.

  3. What does Bill Walker's comment mean? If the "years" of effort have already been done, when is the convention? I'm confused.

  4. I think we need a new constitution to clear up
    so many ambiguities.