DAVID WEBBER: Our U.S. Constitution is outdated, needs revision

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — One of the ironies of our American political culture is that while we view our Constitution as nearly perfect, we do not trust the office holders and institutions that comprise it. Approval of Congress and trust that government will “do the right thing” has been persistently low for two decades as we wrongly blame current office holders. Major changes such as eliminating the Electoral College and adopting Congressional term limits consistently receive two-thirds support for both Democratic and Republican voters, yet serious discussion of changing the Constitution is seldom heard.

The constitutional structure of national government is nearly identical with that adopted in 1789. Only 27 amendments in 225 years have been adopted — and most have dealt with individual rights and not modifying the policy-making process. The direct election of U.S. senators is the largest constitutional change to our governance structure — and that was 100 years ago this May 31.

Our U.S. Constitution is outdated and old-fashioned. It needs updating and revision based on 200 years of experience. This is not a criticism of James Madison, James Monroe or Thomas Jefferson — statesmen and innovators for their time. If they were to reappear in 2013, I am thinking they would be dumbfounded that we still use their document to govern Internet commerce, regulate global derivative trading and oversee drone technology.

Constitutional revision can happen. Missouri is on its fourth constitution since becoming a state in 1821 — the most recent one adopted in 1945, during World War II. Every 20 years, Missourian voters are asked if another constitutional convention should be convened. That should have been part of the U.S. Constitution.

I recently rediscovered "The 'New Science of Politics' and the Old Art of Government" by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., published in The Public Interest in 1987. Moynihan argues that the genius of our founders was inventing a system they thought was capable of “balancing ambition with ambition” so that the public interest was served. The flaw in their thinking, Moynihan argues, is that society changed — and changed almost immediately. Moynihan argues that as soon as the government obtained resources (as early as Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 — an action many considered to be wise, strategic albeit unconstitutional) that citizens began raiding the government for benefits rather than opposing government action to protect their freedom.

Initially, it was land for settlement that the government was able to offer, then land for railroads, then land for establishing education institutions (such as the University of Missouri), then resources for mining, and soon contracts for building dams and interstate highways. Include agricultural price supports, various forms of loan insurance, tax breaks and soon nearly everyone is affected by government control of resources. Of course, all of this pursuit of wealth by respectable citizens and organizations is not entitlements — entitlements are what low income and sick people receive.

The major obstacle to constitutional change now is our collective belief that either the Constitution is nearly perfectly designed or that the risks of a runaway convention are not worth the risks. The later point is probably wise, but that is because we have put off constitutional change for too long.

While not advocating change for change sake, I have plenty of ideas for improving our governmental structure. Here are six ideas bound to provoke argument.

1. Establish a way to adjust state boundaries to reflect changing population size and residency patterns.

2. Adopt “mission statements” in the Constitution that establish policy goals that are agreed on before legislative details are worked out. We should decide whether health insurance is a right before we debate the size of font on the application form.

3. Decide and clarify the structure and role of political parties. This is a large omission of the Founders.

4. Lengthen the policy-making time horizon with four-year House terms and eight-year Senate terms.

5. Strengthen the president with line item veto and fast-track key presidential nominations.

6. Constrain the role of judicial activism in policy-making by changing the process. In other countries, judicial review is conducted in a separate constitutional court not in just any court in the land.

Moynihan concluded that “the psychological realism of the Founders predicted much and served us well in a time of a small and distant national government. It is not clear that this is still the case. Something extra is required in an age when the costs of a wholly self-interested behavior can be so great because government is so large.”

Our governing problem of the future is that the American political tradition does not include periodic self-examination of our constitutional structure. We are going to have to ride this Conestoga wagon as far as it will take us.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Ellis Smith May 7, 2013 | 7:03 a.m.

Do you believe you will live long enough to see some - let alone all - of your wishes come to fruition?

I definitely won't see it happen, and I thank God for that.

Also, several national governments that in recent times severely repressed their own citizens and additionally caused much grief to their neighbors had marvelous constitutions - on paper. Reading those documents, one would have surmised the country was Paradise on Earth.

If persons in authority ride roughshod over or around a written constitution, that constitution is worth no more than the paper it's printed upon, probably less.

What do you think Jefferson, Madison, Monroe et al. would have thought of the term "political science," especially the "science" designation? I suspect those gentlemen were not always as sober as we might think, and they too enjoyed a laugh now and then.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 7, 2013 | 8:04 a.m.

I agreed with the first sentence.

The rest not so much.

For now, I'm especially struck by two of the authors points:

(1) Did you REALLY sarcastically equate things government can offer like land, education, mining resources, and infrastructure contracts with entitlements to low income and sick people? Do you not understand the difference between loaning a relative money to expand their business in a burgeoning market versus loaning them money so they can pay this month's expenses? One creates assets to grow; the other just allows static month-to-month survival on the road to eventual doom. One is smart; the other is just plain dumb unless accompanied by changes in strategy on the part of the recipient. Instead of teaching political science, perhaps the author should be taking courses in business, banking, or psychology.

(2) Adjusting state boundaries to reflect population densities? We already do that with our House of Representatives. It appears the author does not like the Senate, the primary check-and-balance against the tyranny of dense populations (i.e., democracy). The author apparently also does not like the fact that we are a republic of democracies, not a democracy....the latter feared by our founders for some damned good reasons.

I have no problem with "process" so long as we follow it. If the folks in our USA decide they want to change the Constitution...or even our style of government...then by all means call a constitutional convention or provoke a series of amendments. There are mechanisms for doing this and I will support use of those mechanisms. I may fight against your specific changes but will consider your "process" as sound and fair.

I welcome this lucid article; it outlines liberal-think quite clearly and places many "progressive" ideals on display for all to see and evaluate...and that's a good thing.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 7, 2013 | 8:56 a.m.

When this proposed constitutional convention takes place, be absolutely certain to include a provision for "rule by emergency decree" (by the executive branch, assuming there will be branches of the revised federal government).

As a scholar and political "scientist" you obviously know to which historic 20th Century constitution I refer. It, and its "emergency rule clause," allowed the government to blunder on for several years after it was for all intensive pruposes dead, had little support from most citizens, and the future of the country (and eventually that of the larger world) was in reality being decided through pitched battles between politically sponsored street gangs.

Not exactly your genteel classroom setting, right? But the tuition and fees were almost certainly lower. :)

What most of our constitutional framers had in common was they wanted a LIMITED and ACCOUNTABLE federal government; today our federal government is neither of those two.

(Report Comment)
Ed Lane May 7, 2013 | 10:36 a.m.

This so-called administration pays no attention to the Constitution any way so your proposed changes are invalid.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates May 9, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.

I think the founding fathers would be absolutely dumbfounded over what powers the federal government has assumed under the commerce clause.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 9, 2013 | 6:30 a.m.

@ Skip Yates:

You are correct.

I also believe the framers of our Constitution would call the attention of those currently pretending to lead our country - and some supposed educators as well - that our numbered Constitutional amendments do NOT and have NEVER "skipped" from No. 9 to No. 11, with there being no 10th Amendment.

We should change the name of our counry to reflect what it actually has become: "the United StatE of America," not "the United StateS of America." (But how united is it in fact? Not very.)

Old Engineering proverb: It is far easier to trash something than it is to fix it, because trashing requires ABSOLUTELY NO TALENT. That should work well for those currently engaged in teaching political theory and political practice.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates May 9, 2013 | 9:54 a.m.

@ Ellis Smith: I saw a political poster recently with Pelosi, Obama, Reid, Bieden, wearing sombrero's....that said "We don't need no stinkin' constitution!". Funny and fitting. I would comment more but I'm fixin' to go fix something. :-)

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 10, 2013 | 7:05 a.m.

@ Skip Yates:

Do you recall where you saw the poster? I have a blank spot available on my home office wall.

As you may be aware (some of our regulars are) I spent part of my career working in Latin America. I could introduce MU's social "scientist" to folks my age from Argentina, Brazil and Chile who would explain to him how worthless anyone's constitution becomes if it is ignored, and that citizens' "rights" in reality become whatever "El Jeffe" decides they are when he/she gets up each morning.

Reading the two Columbia newspapers I have often thought one problem is Columbians should get out of Columbia more often: start by finding out what's going on in the remainer of Missouri, and in neighboring states (or even at UMKC, UMSL and MS&T).

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates May 11, 2013 | 12:38 a.m.

@Ellis: Poster was in the funny section of Reddit; but, it was some time ago. May be hard to find. I agree with your statements regarding knowledge of the world outside. I lived in foreign countries 12 years or so of my life..Austria, Spain, Japan and St Lucia, BWI, visited a great deal more, and still read foreign newspapers occasionally.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 11, 2013 | 6:47 a.m.

@ Skip Yates:

I've alphabetically "blended" your list with one of mine: Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Germany, Guyana, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Republic of Mexico, Spain, St. Lucia (BWI), Trinidad* & Tobago, Venezuela.

So there's no confusion, my contributions except for Germany are places outside the United States in which I've worked, but have not actually been a resident.

Obviously not everyone would have that many opportunities, but it doesn't excuse sitting in one place ENDLESSLY CONTEMPLATING YOUR OWN NAVEL. When you can't even see as far as the other three campuses of your own (multi-campus) university, that's just pathetic.

*- A member of OPEC and surprisingly industrialized (Tobago is tourist and agricultural). Skip, a great way to spend an evening in Trinidad is lying on the beach with a six-pack of Carib beer, watching gas flares from off-shore oil rigs. Very romantic (and definitely smells like money)!

(Report Comment)

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