November 15, 2007


If it ain't broke: A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country By Larry J. Sabato (The Economist, 11/08/07)

This book contains many sound ideas, such as the bar on gerrymandering, and some less sound, such as national service. But Mr Sabato does not want us to pick one or two of his suggestions. He wants to call a second constitutional convention to rethink the entire document bar the Bill of Rights. The current approach of piecemeal amendments is not working, he says. Very few pass, and many that are proposed are foolish: think of the amendment to ban flag-burning. No, what America needs is a grand meeting of clever and high-minded people to draw up a new, improved constitution better suited to the 21st century.

The arguments against this are old, but worth repeating. Despite its age, the American constitution has worked better than any other constitution in any country, as Mr Sabato admits. The men who wrote it were giants. Granted, their work could be improved on. And tinkering with it, one amendment at a time, is slow. But that is the point. Changing a constitution should be difficult. And the risks of a major re-write are huge. What is the chance that a fresh crew of framers will be as wise as the original ones? Sometimes radicalism is best kept in the classroom.

One of the more ludicrous aspects of a book that's supposedly about making the country fairer is that Mr. Sabato would ban discussion of abortion at the Convention. Of course, the Founders likewise tried getting around slavery, to their discredit and the country's bloody misfortune.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2007 12:00 PM

Can you even call another constitutional convention without amending the current Constitution?

Posted by: sam at November 15, 2007 1:09 PM

I like the way he starts right with the subtitle at sliding across the axiom that the goal of government is to maximize fairness.

Posted by: Mike Earl at November 15, 2007 1:23 PM

Sabato was interviewed on Medved's show yesterday and IIRC he said a constitutional convention can be called by an affirmative vote of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states, and that for any change to be approved, both houses of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states would have to vote for approval.

Posted by: Patrick H at November 15, 2007 1:44 PM

PH: Thanks. That sounds almost like the requirement for constitutional amendment. If it is difficult (almost impossible) to get any amendment passed now, how does this moron think anyone can get mass contitutional amendments passed? No wonder no one trusts these academic types.

Posted by: sam at November 15, 2007 2:04 PM

Sam: the moron suffers a delusion of grandeur to believe he can craft a "more perfect" constitution.

Posted by: ic at November 15, 2007 2:56 PM

of two-thirds of the states would have to vote for approval.

It is three-quarters, the same as with amendments that come from Congress. Which is why all the talk of a "runaway convention" is from ignorance. Such a convention would be self-limiting, because it can't do anything on its own. The purpose of a convention is to provide a way around a Congress that isn't doing its duties (or at least a threat...)

But what I find quaint is his idea that if we just talk about problems enough, they'll magically solve themselves. (Do doubt via a Supreme Court decision.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at November 15, 2007 3:35 PM

Precedent was set with the original convention, once the states get together they can more or less draft anything they want, ignore the current national articles completely, and set their own terms for approval.

Of course, everyone knew the Articles of Confederation weren't working and it had no vested interests to defend it unlike the current Constitution. But in theory, the states could do anything.

The big problem of course is that such a convention would unlikely be about improving the institutions of governance, and all about approving legislation through extra-constitutional means. Most of his ideas are wrong.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at November 15, 2007 3:52 PM

The real problem with a Constitutional Convention (from the congress critter's point of view) is that sitting members of the current gov are not allowed to be delegates to the convention. So they must either resign their current positions (and lose the incumbent's advantage when they try to get them back) or be outside the perceived power structure. The latter would create a whole group of people that, even if the new constitution is never approved, have name recognition and could have close to an incumbent's advantage when they decide to run for Congress. That absolutely can not be allowed to happen. So if a CC looks like it is about to be convened, Congress will do nearly anything to spike it.

Posted by: bbb at November 15, 2007 4:23 PM

A so-called "constitutional convention" which "could not" reconsider the Bill of Rights, or address baby-murder, is not a constitutional converntion. Let's have some rectification of names here.

Theorecally, each state would be sovereign and equal--one state, one vote. Sabato is--ahem--whistling in the wind. If such a convention were convened, he would find out what's the matter with Kansas.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 15, 2007 5:30 PM

While a National Const. Conv. would be both impossible and absurd, there are probably numerous states that should gut their Constitutions and start fresh.

Illinois is one of them, and it is my next big project. (there is an automatic Conv. vote on next year's ballot)

Though "banning" talk of abortion is a fool's errand, most states have enough of a balance of power that no electorate would ratify either a ban or the enshrinement of gay marriage or abortion.

Better to attempt passage of such through ballot initiatives.

Posted by: Bruno at November 15, 2007 5:31 PM

That's not how it would work. 51% of each of the state's legislature would select and intruct that state's constitutional convention delegation. My comment stands. The left REALLY REALLY does not want to go this way. It is a prescription for civil war.

We don't really want to either, but we should be less apprehensive that the other side about hurling ourselves into the storm of steel.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 16, 2007 5:20 AM