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Our U.S. Constitution is outdated and old-fashioned.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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.