2013-10-08 – I’ve been planning to write about structural changes that would bring the American government back from the brink of insanity. You probably would have seen this in about a month, but my cousin Roger posted a list of his own, so I’m writing this today.
Most of these would require constitutional amendments but not all. Tinkering with the Constitution is difficult and potentially dangerous business, particularly if you want to change institutions that have a constituency. The normal method of amending the Constitution requires Congress to adopt the change and then send it out to the states for ratification. I have my doubts that what I propose here would get the votes of entrenched politicians. They get their power and livelihood from our current broken system.
The other way to amend the Constitution is through a constitutional convention. Holding a constitutional convention puts the whole document up for grabs. There are many thing in our existing Constitution that are just fine the way they are. I would hate to put those at risk with a constitutional convention. But let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.
Here are my proposals:
Compact Congressional Districts. Let’s make it a little harder for the pols to gerrymander safe districts for members of their party. That’s a tough thing to prevent, but a constitutional amendment to require compact congressional districts would make it harder. You could add a clause stating that three elections in a district in which the victory margin exceeded 10 percent is prima facie evidence of an improperly drawn district. It would diminish the value of a gerrymandered district. In addition, I would reaffirm the principle of one-person-one-vote.
Reconstituted Senate. The Great Compromise that created the representation rules of the House and Senate served its purpose over 200 years ago and needs to be rethought. Wyoming should not have the same number of senators as California. I do think there is some value in giving Wyoming a little extra voice than its population would warrant, but not quite as much as it has. My suggestion would be to rank states by population and divide then into three almost-equal tiers (17 in the most populous tier, 16 in the middle tier, and 17 in the least populous tier). The top tier states would get three senators, the middle tier would get two, and the bottom tier would get one. This would retain 100 as the total number of senators, but would partially realign the representation based on population.
Direct Election of the President. It is time to scrap the Electoral College. We shouldn’t be inaugurating Presidents who were rejected by a majority of voters. Short of that, electors should be allocated proportionally in all states – not just some states. Doing this in just some states is a form of super-gerrymandering. It has to be all or nothing.
Public Financing of Elections. Public financing of elections would be coupled with restrictions on private political expenditures. And only individuals would be permitted to contribute to a political campaign: no corporations, no unions, no churches, no PACs—no one but a living breathing human being.
Disparate Impact of Voting Rules. Voter ID laws and other laws that disadvantage any identifiable group would be struck down without a compelling state reason for the law that couldn’t reasonably be accomplished in any other way (in which the requirement would be strictly applied against the discriminatory rule). Jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory laws would have to submit voting rule changes to the Justice Department for prior approval.
Crossover Primaries. The one thing that has driven our parties in opposite directions is single-party primaries. To me, the obvious cure of this would be to require primary elections to be open to all voters. Candidates of a party would need to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters to get their party’s nomination.
None of the Above Vote. When it comes to the general election, should we really have to swallow whatever bums the parties put forward. I say that every ballot should contain a None-of-the-Above selection. If None of the Above wins the election, a new election would be held within 30 days and the rejected candidates would be disqualified from running. This would discourage candidates from running on the negatives of their opponents. They would have to give us positive reasons to vote for them or be kicked out themselves. (See my 2006 article on this subject in the Chicago Tribune.)
Term Limits. I would be in favor of a 12-year limit for the following federal office: Representative (i.e., six terms); Senator (i.e., two terms); President (i.e., three terms); Supreme Court Justice. Term limits for Congress have been much discussed, so I won’t add to that. But I’d like to give my reasoning for including the President and the Supreme Court in the proposed 12-year rule.
For President, the two-term restriction has extracted a huge political price. Although only one President ever served more than two terms (FDR), all two-term Presidents before Eisenhower had the potential for running for a third term. Taking that potential away made all two-term Presidents into lame ducks. Almost every two-term President since Eisenhower has been the subject of crippling attacks as a result. Adding a third possible term would reverse the trend. A second consequence of the two-term rule has been a tendency of the out-of-power party to nominate a second-stringer against an incumbent. The really strong candidates sit out these elections knowing that they only have to wait four years for a better shot at winning. That would be different if they thought they had to wait eight years for their chance.
I am including the Supreme Court under my proposed 12-year rule. A lifetime appointment simply makes the position too important. Twelve years in plenty.
Majority Rule in Congress. The Constitution envisions that laws and appointments be passed by a simple majority in each house (other than specific supermajorities enumerated in the Constitution). Rules that create higher hurdles, other than rules that would delay consideration for up to 30 days, are unconstitutional. This should be reformed by giving citizens standing to challenge any procedural rule that would contravene the principle of majority rule.
Mandatory Cloture in Both Houses. Representatives and Senators should have the right to petition their respective chambers to bring a bill to an immediate vote. A petition signed by 40 percent of the members should call the questions and a simple majority would end debate and schedule a vote on the bill within 24 hours.
Dissolution of Congress. The two house of Congress should be required to pass a budget for each budget cycle (preferably two years rather than the current one year). Failure to do so by the end of the prior budget period would result in the dissolution of Congress, new elections within 60 days, and disqualification of all members from running for the new Congress. They are willing to sacrifice the lives, fortunes, and sacred honor of their constituents. What about their own? It’s time our representatives had some skin in the game.
Override of Supreme Court Decisions. One last thing. Presidents can veto congressional legislation. Congress can override a presidential veto. It’s reciprocal. The Supreme Court can strike down actions of both the legislative and executive branches, but there is no check on this power. I am proposing that Congress by a two-thirds majority, with the concurrence of the President be able to reverse an action in which the Supreme Court struck down a federal law or regulation.
So there you have it: my suggestions for improving the workings of our government. Roger, what do you think?