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It’s Not Broken, So Don’t Fix It – Misguided tinkering would misshape our society, with Gordon Lloyd(San Francisco Chronicle) October 28, 2007

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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If you believe Professor Larry Sabato, the U.S. Constitution–after performing well for more than 200 years–needs an extreme makeover.

In his new book, “A More Perfect Constitution,” the University of Virginia professor rolls the Constitution into the operating room for major surgery, breathlessly prescribing 23 specific revisions in 230 pages. Like the makeover specialists on reality television, he proposes to turn our tired, archaic political body into something trendier for the 21st century.

Sabato’s constitutional redo touches just about everything, and throws in the kitchen sink for good measure. First, he wants to boost the Senate from 100 members to 135, and virtually double the membership of the House, to an even 1,000. There are also term limits for Congress, a new election cycle and, while we’re at it, only one six-year term for the president, with a two-year performance bonus.

But he’s just getting started. A line-item veto, a balanced budget amendment, a limit on the president’s war powers, a mandatory two-year national service program — it’s all there and more.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take such a sweeping proposal. The Constitution provides for amendments but wisely sets the bar too high for regular tinkering. Article V allows two-thirds of the House and Senate to propose an amendment that three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve. It’s not as if that hasn’t worked — there are now 27 amendments to the Constitution, eight of wich were approved between 1932 and 1992.

Professor Sabato is concerned that Congress screens out most proposed constitutional amendments, but as former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole said, “There are a lot of bad ideas in Washington, and someone needs to stop them.”

You don’t have to be a conservative to think it’s a bad idea to call a constitutional convention with 23 revisions on the table. At a recent meeting to discuss Sabato’s proposal, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro said she was afraid of potential mischief in a constitutional convention, noting the system now works pretty well.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, not certain where we might find the leadership for a second round of framing and founding, said he was “pretty fond of the Constitution we have now.”

Beyond the question of process, what about the content of Sabato’s 23 ideas? In essence, Sabato wishes he could improve the Constitution in two basic ways: by making it fairer and more effective. These aspirations sound nice — what’s a little Botox here and there? — but in fact do more harm than good.

For example, Sabato’s idea of unfairness is often little more than the founders’ respect for the role of states in our federalist system. Notably, none of his proposed revisions would strengthen state and local government, preferring instead a kind of national democracy. This is not an updating of the founders’ ideas — it’s an assault on them.

Sabato believes that it’s unfair for smaller states to have the same number of senators as large states, when, in fact, the House was designed to represent the people and the Senate to represent the states. If anything, the modern problem is that senators rarely see their responsibility as representing a state.

Similarly, the electoral college is insufficiently appreciated by many, including Sabato. We forget that, throughout the Constitution, roles are preserved for states as well as individuals, including the popular vote for the people and the electoral vote for the states. Even today, the electoral college serves a useful purpose, drawing candidates to campaign more widely in the closing days of a campaign to reach those contested states. And where would we have been in the 2000 election if the electoral college had not reduced the recount to a single dispute in Florida? A long and contentious national re-count and a delay in inaugurating a president would have been troublesome outcomes.

Sabato’s plan would further empower political parties in a parliamentary democracy in which revised election cycles platoon a lot of Republicans or Democrats into the game simultaneously. If part of the problem is that the president can’t line up a compatible team in Congress and get things done, let’s just change the rules. But election results consistently remind us that the people like the check and balance of a president from one party and a Congress from the other. Contrary to Sabato’s notion of more tinkering and more government, it may well be that the people, despite their complaints, are happy to keep government stalemated and less a part of their daily lives.

In reality, some of Sabato’s concerns can be traced to a lack of political will to use existing powers, rather than flaws in the system itself. For example, he is right when he argues that Congress hasn’t provided an effective check on the president’s war powers, but we don’t need war authority running out every six months to fix that. We need a Congress with more backbone to use the war and budget powers it already has. This is a symptom of a larger problem in Sabato’s approach — that we should substitute new organizations and structures when political leadership doesn’t deliver the results we want.

Although Sabato says all he really wants to do is start a conversation, we believe that the subtitle of his book –“23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country” –would be more accurate if it read: “23 Ways to Lose Your Founders.” Rather than read this book, you might consider Heather MacDonald’s work, “The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society.”

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