Progressives Should Put Constitutional Reform on their Agenda
by TomSkidmore, Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 07:29:11 AM EST
We wish Senator Johnson a speedy recovery, and hope that he will continue his term in the senate. But his sad case, along with Bush v. Gore, and the Dick Cheney's advocacy of a dictatorial executive, point up the shortcomings of our constitution. Progressives need to put the issue of constitutional reform on the table. I do not claim to have the best answer, what I'm laying out here are tentative opinions to stimulate discussion for a new, workable and democratic constitution for the nation. I think we need to consider a parliamentary model. Another idea, perhaps more politically possible, would be direct election of the president. Changing the political superstructure is not a panacea, but the past twenty years suggests that the constitution is severely flawed and our country is in great danger as a result.
Political pie in the sky, one might say? But so were the direct election of senators and the progressive income tax when the Populist Party made them a part of political discourse. Twenty years later they were in the constitution.
In picking a senator fewer than 200,000 South Dakota Republicans votes for John Thune were valued the same as nine million Californians who voted for Barbara Boxer. Now their choice for governor may thwart the will of the American people to put a check on a rogue presidency. Such a differing ratio in the power of citizens does not belong in a democracy. The Senate should be democratically elected or its constitutional function should be changed. Obviously, we need less partisan institutions for redistricting as well.
There are other constitutional problems as well.
The executive is paradoxically too powerful, with insufficient accountability to Congress and not powerful enough in terms of the ability of political parties to construct a legislative program and pass it through congress.
1. Not powerful enough. The parliamentary system allows a majority in power to choose an executive who controls a majority in Parliament, and therefore, as long as he maintains a parliamentary majority, is rarely stymied in implementing the program s/he was elected to pursue. Under our current constitution, small minorities can stop presidential legislation at many points along the way and paralyze our country from adapting to changing circumstances. One of the reasons Americans are so much against "government" is that our particular system is so dysfunctional when it comes to legislative change. If we vote for a conservative government, we should get one; if we vote for a progressive government, we should get one.
2. Not accountable enough. In the British system, the principal ministers of the government including the prime minister are questioned by the opposition in Parliament on television for all to see. Question time means that no one has a chance in politics unless they are sufficiently intelligent and articulate to explain their actions. If they are not, they shouldn't be president.
3. We need to debate the role of the Supreme Court. In many cases it remains effective as a final arbiter of constitutional disputes, as in the recent Hamdi and Hamdan cases, but Bush v. Gore shows that the system is broken, especially given the appearance of corruption created by Antonin Scalia voting while his daughter worked for one of the parties to the litigation, to say nothing of the presumption of the court that it had jurisdiction. But some liberal cases haven't worked well either. I believe that laws prohibiting abortion are deeply patriarchal and immoral. But Roe, by taking the matter out of the realm of democratic decision-making has made the enemies of democracy seem like its defender. Abortion rights are most secure in New York, where we managed to secure them through the democratic action of our legislature. What is the proper balance?
4. We need to examine the voting system. Many countries have a hybrid of constituencies and proportional representation. This might be a way to deal with the problem of federalism and the Senate. Others allow the voters to reject both candidates, or to rank them. Would a multiplicity of parties allow for an enriching of political discussion, options and ideas? Part of the crisis of our country is that what is possible in our current political system is so limited that politics can be neither inspiring or practical.
5. The ruling of the Supreme Court in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which gave corporations the same rights as individuals to free speech, has paralyzed government efforts to preserve the relative autonomy of the government from concentrations of capital, which is another threat to our democracy. We need a constitution which can deal with the problem of excessive concentration of wealth and power, the classic problem of corruption within a successful republic.
Should we/can we develop a netroots position on constitutional reform? Can we make Democratic and Republican politicians address this issue as fundamental to the future of our republic?