Like most Americans, you’ll recognize the below guest blog post as a rare honor for Extreme Mortman. Legendary University of Virginia Prof. Larry Sabato exclusively shares with us his wisdom on profound constitutional matters as he launches a new book. We know it’s a rare occasion to hear from the reclusive Professor, so we’re delighted he breaks his media silence with us.
So extinguish your cigarettes, turn off your electronic communications devices, and please give a warm Extreme Mortman welcome to Prof. Larry J. Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and author of the new book, “A More Perfect Constitution.” Larry?
Like almost all Americans, I grew up believing in the Constitution—every bit of it. But having chosen American politics as my primary passion in life, over decades of daily thinking about the issues that confronted the nation, I gradually began to see that parts of the system were no longer working very well, that the day-to-day, incremental political process was inadequate to fix the root causes of the system’s dysfunction. Bit by bit, I began to construct an alternate universe for parts of the American system. The ideas comprising this universe are at the heart of my new book, “A More Perfect Constitution.”
By no means are my proposed reforms a repudiation of the founders’ principles. The heart of their Constitution (individual liberty, the separation of powers, and federalism) is untouched by my reforms. Yet it’s worth remembering that the Philadelphia framers were operating in something of a pressure-packed vacuum. They were attempting to build a system that had never existed in this form before, and to do it with dispatch. Much of what they built was pure jerry-rigged experimentation. Moreover, they recognized this and fully expected that future generations of Americans would rework their designs to fit both actual practice and the needs of new times.
In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to James Madison:
“No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.”
In 1797, George Washington wrote a similar letter, saying:
“The warmest friends and best supporters the Constitution has, do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but they found them unavoidable and are sensible, if evil is likely to arise there from, the remedy must come hereafter; for in the present moment, it is not to be obtained; and as there is a Constitutional door open for it, I think the People (for it is with them to Judge) can as they will have the advantage of experience on their Side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments which are necessary [as] ourselves. I do not think we are more inspired, have more wisdom, or possess more virtue, than those who will come after us.”
Today, we require creative adaptation of our political system to the needs of a continental country now exceeding 300 million people in an age of advanced technology that was undreamed of by the founders. The Internet provides the welcome mechanism needed for widespread citizen participation, both to stimulate creative discussions about constitutional change and then to help organize mock constitutional conventions throughout the country, which can eventually lead to the real thing.
In order to start this creative conversation I submit to you a few of the 23 proposals contained in “A More Perfect Constitution,” in the hope that you will take the time to discuss these ideas and suggest your own. I look forward to the creative solutions each of you will bring to the table in this vital effort.
1. Both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts have illustrated a modern imbalance in the constitutional power to wage war. Once Congress consented to these wars, presidents were able to continue them for many years— long after popular support had drastically declined. Limit the president’s war-making authority by creating a provision that requires Congress to vote affirmatively every six months to continue American military involvement. Debate in both houses would be limited so that the vote could not be delayed. If either house of Congress voted to end a war, the president would have one year to withdraw all combat troops.
2. If the 26 least populated states voted as a bloc, they would control the U.S. Senate with a total of just under 17 percent of the country’s population. This small-state stranglehold is not merely a bump in the road; it is a massive roadblock to fairness that can, and often does, stop all progressive traffic. We should give each of the 10 most populated states two additional Senate seats and give each of the next 15 most populated states one additional seat. Sparsely populated states will still be disproportionately represented, but the ridiculous tilt to them in today’s system can be a thing of the past.
3. More than 14 million American citizens are automatically and irrevocably barred from holding the office of president simply because they were not born in the United States—- either they are immigrants or their American mothers gave birth to them while outside U.S. territory. This exclusion creates a noxious form of second-class citizenship. The requirement that the president must be a “natural born citizen” should be replaced with a condition that a candidate must be a U.S. citizen for at least 20 years before election to the presidency.
4. Excessive authority has accrued to the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court— so much so that had the founders realized the courts’ eventual powers, they would have limited judicial authority. The insularity of lifetime tenure, combined with the appointments of relatively young attorneys who give long service on the bench, produces senior judges representing the views of past generations better than views of the current day. A nonrenewable term limit of 15 years should apply to all federal judges, from the district courts all the way up to the Supreme Court.
5. If a convention of clowns designed an amusing, crazy-quilt method of nominating presidential candidates, the resulting system would probably look much as ours does today. The incoherent organization of primaries and caucuses dictates that candidates start campaigning at least a full year in advance of the first nomination contest in order to become known nationwide and to raise the funds needed to compete. Congress should be constitutionally required to designate four regions of contiguous states; the regions would hold their nominating events in successive months, beginning in April and ending in July. A U.S. Election Lottery, to be held on January 1 of the presidential election year, would determine the order of regional events. The new system would add an element of drama to the beginning of a presidential year while also shortening the campaign: no one would know in which region the contest would begin until New Year’s Day.
6. The benefits of living in a great democracy are not a God-given right. In exchange for the privileges of American citizenship, every individual owes a debt of public service to his fellow citizens. The Constitution should mandate that all ablebodied Americans devote two years of their lives to serving their nation—and whether the service is civilian or military, domestic or foreign, would be up to each individual. The civilian, military, and nonprofit options would have to accommodate the varied talents of the population, as well as our diverse dictates of conscience.