For many years now, I’ve had this idea that maybe we were overdue for a major overhaul of our country’s constitution. While I believe the current version is easily the best of its kind, there are a variety of issues it simply doesn’t deal with very well, or at all. The recent shutdown of the US government is a great example of a situation that our founding fathers don’t seem to have considered.
I’ve put together a list of my own ideas for updates to the US Constitution. I don’t pretend to be qualified to present an actual rewrite, so these are just general descriptions of the idea.
As a practical matter, I don’t think it’s really likely the country’s politicians would ever come together and agree on a constitutional update of this scale, but it’s interesting to speculate about it.
A Corporation Is Not A Person
The modern concept of a corporation is much broader and much more powerful than what they had in mind 240 years ago. However, there’s always been a certain tendency to treat a corporation as an individual in some respects. One of my first updates would be to ensure that there are limits on that idea.
And of course, the main reason to care about this is to keep corporate money out of politics. I would take it a step further and say maybe we should ban any contribution from any sort of business entity. There are companies that have spent several times as much money lobbying Congress to overturn the Affordable Care Act than what they would have spent simply giving their workers health care benefits in the first place.
Something the constitution doesn’t explicitly address is the idea of the people being able to vote a senator or house representative out of office before their term is expired. By interpretation of the 10th Amendment, this is left to the individual states, and most do not have any mechanism for doing this. Only 18 states allow for a recall election for US Senators, and as far as I can tell, none allow for a recall election for seats in the House of Representatives.
I think there should be a recall mechanism to allow the people to remove members of Congress before the end of their term. Right now, it’s far too easy for congressmen to ignore the will of their constituency. Unless it’s immediately before a regular election, they can often get away with it without significant consequences. That needs to change. They need to know that if the people don’t like how they’re being represented, they can do something about it TODAY, not a year or more later.
Congressional District Boundaries That Make Sense
The borders for Congressional districts are controlled at the state level, and typically they get redone whenever control of the state legislature shifts from one party to another, or when the population shifts around enough to influence election results. This is because the party in charge wants the borders to favor their candidates in the next election. This is called gerrymandering.
Illinois District 4 in Chicago is an extreme example of gerrymandering.
The idea behind gerrymandering is to set the borders of congressional districts in such a way as to concentrate voters into a single district where they might otherwise have been spread out across multiple districts. This means that they influence the results in just one district instead of all of them. Alternately, the borders might be drawn up to distribute certain voters across multiple districts, where they’ll not have enough numbers to influence any of them. This practice results in some truly bizarrely shaped districts, but more importantly it also results in the wrong guy being elected.
This abuse is not really limited to one party or the other, but in recent years it’s gotten especially bad in some areas. We need to install a system where the rules for creating district boundaries are the same everywhere, and those rules need to require district boundaries to be as simple as possible.
This idea has been bouncing around for a long time. The usual argument against it is that it shifts power from Congress to the President, and there’s certainly some truth in that. The problem is, it wouldn’t be an issue if Congress could manage to keep from creating bills with an odd melange of wildly unrelated things.
For example, let’s say that a bill is created that allocates funding for highway construction projects. Everybody pretty much agrees about the highway projects, but while the bill is in committee someone manages to attach another item for a controversial school vouchers program. What does that have to do with highway construction? Nothing at all, but there’s no rule that says items on a bill have to be related to each other.
In practice, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not uncommon for a bill to have an “anchor” item like the highway projects that everybody is likely to vote for, but then also have a laundry list of items that would never in a million years be passed if voted on individually. However, what happens is that one congressman makes a deal with another… and another…
For example, maybe Congressman Joe is on the committee that is working on the highway projects bill, and he’s got a project being debated in another committee where Congressman Bob serves. Bob tells Joe that if he adds the school vouchers item to the highway projects bill, then Joe’s project will make it through Bob’s committee.
The deal is made, and maybe another dozen such deals along the way, and eventually the final bill comes up for a vote. The original highway projects item may have been universally popular, but every item that’s been added along the way is likely to have shifted votes one way or another. Now what was once a no-brainer is a tight vote. If the bill fails to pass, it might die altogether, or it might go back to committee where it’s subjected to more changes and more deal-making.
If the bill is eventually passed by Congress it is sent to the President. He agrees that the highway projects are a good idea, but doesn’t like the school vouchers idea and maybe one or more of the other various items that have been added along the way. The problem is, he can’t approve one without the other, so he vetoes the whole thing.
A line-item veto would give the President the ability to say “yes” to the highway projects but “no” to the school vouchers or any other unrelated items attached to the bill. This would arguably shift power to the president, but only in the sense that it would cancel out all the deal-making in Congress that leads to such ”Frankenstein” bills being business as usual.
I think it would be a good thing. I think it would require Congress to focus more on the individual merits of each thing being added to a bill, and less on how they can leverage one item to help or hinder something else.
A Way To Force Congress To Act
One of the most bizarre things to come out in the news about the recent government shutdown is that on October 1st, House Resolution 368 was passed in the House of Representatives. It changes the operating rules so that only the Speaker of the House or the House Majority Leader can call for a vote on the Senate bill to reopen everything. Previously, any representative would have been able to call for such a vote.
Republican leaders have been telling us that they haven’t called for a vote because there aren’t enough votes to pass a “clean” version of the bill to reopen the government. ”Clean” meaning, minus the attempts at repealing or delaying parts of the Affordable Care Act. However, this is contradicted by reports that a couple of dozen Republican representatives have supposedly changed their vote. So it seems the real reason that Speaker John Boehner hasn’t called for a vote is that he knows it will pass.
The bottom line is, it shouldn’t be possible for either branch of Congress to stall things like this. There needs to be some means for either the President or the minority leader to force a vote on something. If there aren’t enough votes to pass the bill, then let it fail!
What I Haven’t Mentioned
There are probably a few other ideas I could add here, but my thoughts have not coalesced as yet. So far, I’ve tried to restrict my ideas to things that have to do with the government working efficiently. I didn’t want to get into things like changing the amendments that have to do with guns or free speech or privacy. It’s not that I don’t think there is room for improvement in such areas, rather I just don’t think there’d be too much agreement on the specifics.