29 July 2008

A Call to Revise the Constitution (amended 8/5)

When I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a class that was rewriting the Constitution for the late 20th century. I didn’t take that opportunity; and I’ve regretted it ever since but I’ve always had a hankering to tinker with it. The danger in calling a second Constitutional Convention is that it might do what the first one did: Toss out the baby with the bathwater (the Articles of Confederation) and adopt a completely different child. But absent a comprehensive 27th Amendment, I’m not sure there’s a lesser remedy.

That said, I like the Constitution. It is one of the most remarkable political documents in human history but it is 220+ years old; the world is a far different place than it was in the late 18th century; and the current, sad state of our politics suggests that it needs a “tune up.” As someone I read pointed out recently, our Constitution was the first of its kind – ever. And while it has stood up very well over the course of time (better than many of its imitators), we’ve learned a great deal in the interim and we’ve progressed in our understanding of democracy. So much so, that the document is beginning to show its grey hairs and is looking positively arthritic in many respects.

The following is by no means a comprehensive attempt to rewrite the Constitution but I have gone through the document section by section and have tried to address at least some of the more egregious problems that have arisen over the last two centuries.

The Preamble: There’s no way I’m going to touch this. It’s one of the few pieces of literature I can cite from memory, and I still can’t do it without singing it to the tune from the Schoolhouse Rock series. And, to be honest, it lays out why we have a government: Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility (the “rule of law”), provide for common defense, promote the commonweal, and secure our inherent rights.

I would incorporate here a new Article I, pushing the currents articles down one rung (i.e., the current Article I becomes Article II, etc.). The new Article I would concern “the people” and incorporate the Bill of Rights and other relevant amendments.

(new) Article I.

Section 1 et al.: From the get go, we need to incorporate the Thirteenth – Fifteenth Amendments, particularly the 15th, which ensures that these rights are recognized by the states.

Section 2: First Amendment

Section 3: revised Second Amendment: The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed, except to secure the domestic tranquility and commonweal as determined by the individual states and Congress.

I’m not persuaded that having the right to own a 45 magnum is going to prevent the government from becoming despotic (look at our current situation) but I also don’t think it’s unreasonable that people would want weapons to feel secure. I think this is a reasonable compromise between the NRA nuts and their opposite number – those who would take away all guns. It’s up to the states and Congress to set reasonable gun-control laws and it leaves the debate open to discussion.

Sections 4-11: The remaining amendments in the original Bill of Rights.

Section 12: Congress and the states shall not infringe a citizen’s right to vote except insofar as to reasonably safeguard against electoral fraud. Congress shall also legislate a uniform voting system that ensures maximum opportunity for participation and the ability to audit said elections in the case of dispute.

I think this is necessary because, at the moment, we really don’t have a “right to vote.” This also would need a little tweaking to make sure voters weren’t disenfranchised because of sexual orientation, gender, religion, race, etc.

Section 13: The right of every person to be secure in their privacy shall not be abridged, and all branches of government are enjoined to ensure this.

This would need a bit of tweaking since there may be legitimate reasons for people to give up some of their privacy rights in certain situations but the principle we need to make explicit is that the government has to present a compelling reason to invade a person’s privacy.

[Addendum: Section 14: A "citizen" shall be defined as an individual born in the United States, who has at least one parent who is a citizen, or who is naturalized according to procedures prescribed by Congress. It shall not include corporate bodies that may be treated as people under certain laws.

I feel this is necessary to preclude the ludicrous situation we're in now where corporations are accorded all the rights of real people. I understand that, for legal reasons, it may be advantageous to treat corporations as persons in some respects but they are not humans, they have no inherent rights, and they do not deserve the protection of the Constitution.

Section 15: Congress and the states shall establish procedures for the public financing of elections.

This provision would be a step in severely restricting the influence of money on our political process.]

Article II.

Section 1: I considered a unicameral legislature (like, I believe, Nebraska’s) but I’m not sure that would be workable so for the nonce, we’ll stick with a House and Senate.

Section 2: There are two changes I would like to see in the House: One, moving to a parliamentary system so that we aren’t stuck in the duopoly that has developed over the last half century and which relegates third parties to being spoilers (vid., Nader in 2000, Teddy Roosevelt in 1912).

I’m going to avoid mechanics for the moment but would suggest that any party that could muster 10-20% of the vote in a general election deserves a spot at the table. This would make it possible to accommodate more representative viewpoints of concerned citizens without making politics so fractious that we’re stuck with the situations in Italy or Israel, where parties polling the ridiculously low 1-2% can become major players in forming governments.

The second change I would like to see is an expansion of the number of representatives. Around 600 would help bring reps closer to their constituencies and still be a workable number (I believe the Brits have around 600, so it’s doable).

Section 3: The only change I would immediately consider here is eliminating the requirement of a supermajority to impeach. I don’t like supermajorities.

Section 7: Though I just said I don’t like supermajorities, I’d keep that requirement in this section regarding presidential vetoes.

(added): No amendments shall be offered to a bill that does not have a direct relationship to that bill.

I offer this caveat in an effort to discourage “poison pills” and earmarks. An amendment should amend the basic thrust of the law in question; if some legislator’s proposal is worthy of consideration, they can offer it as a separate bill or append it to a related measure.

Another addition I would like to see here (though I’m not sure how to word it) is a stipulation that bills cannot be passed that affect an individual or particular entity. Thus congress wouldn’t be able to propose bills or offer amendments that favored a single company; they could still legislate to subsidize an industry (say, solar power) or affect a class of citizens.

Article III. [This is actually the most important part of the new Constitution in my opinion since the need to revise the document comes primarily from the President’s creeping increase in power and influence.]

Section 1: Eliminate the Electoral College entirely. Presidents should be elected by direct vote just like their legislative counterparts.

And though this runs the risk of letting Arnold Schwarzenegger become president, I’d remove the requirement that they be natural-born citizens.

Section 2: Again, I’d remove the supermajority requirement to ratify treaties. I’d also remove the power to make recess appointments. There’s no situation so desperate that the president can’t wait until Congress is back in session to name a permanent head to any position.

(added): The president shall have the power to grant pardons subject to the consideration and approval of both Houses of Congress. No more midnight pardons of any future Richard Nixons or George Bushes.

(added): The president may not commit US forces or authorize covert operations without the advice and consent of both Houses of Congress absent a declared state of war. This provision would save us (I hope) from the last 50 years of “foreign misadventures” that have given us the glorious successes of Iran, Guatemala, Viet Nam, Iraq, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

(added): The president may not declare martial law without the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Supreme Court and/or both Houses of Congress. Nor shall the president be authorized to use US military forces as domestic law enforcement absent rebellion, invasion or a state of martial law (incorporating Posse Comitatus).

(added): Presidential signing statements shall be limited to addressing how the executive will implement the will of Congress. In the case of disputes between the Legislative and Executive branches regarding that implementation, the Congress shall pass a resolution instructing the president how to do so. This measure is an attempt to restrain the abuse of the signing statement that we’ve seen George Bush use in the last seven years.

Article IV.

The only change here would be to explicitly incorporate Marbury v. Madison (the Court’s power of judicial review).

Except for changing the numeration, the remaining articles appear to be functioning quite well.

Article VIII.

Except in time of declared war or as needed to defend embassies and consulates, no US military personnel shall be stationed overseas.

This removes the impetus to empire that is destroying this nation yet still leaves us room in case of a real war situation to send troops where they’re needed.

Eliminate the District of Columbia and reincorporate the land into Maryland and Virginia (it’s not that much territory and Maryland is so small anyway, so maybe we can give it all to them – sorry, I was born in Annapolis and have a soft spot for the state). We can retain a Federal District (the Mall and other government property) but people living in the former district should have representation. At the very least, those living in formerly Virginian territory could be counted as Virginians; those in Maryland, Marylanders.

I’m not a fan of term limits so I’d be loath to include the 22nd Amendment.

Don’t know where I’d put it but I’d also include a provision that the federal government cannot use private contractors (mercenaries) to fulfill its duties under the Constitution. This provision would need work since the government couldn’t do everything on its own. But perhaps we could work out a system where government had to exercise control and oversight over private contractors. I would forbid any use of military contractors entirely.

26 July 2008

Let's bury the word "warfighter"

Readers (few though you may be) know by now that one of my bete noires is the militarization of this country. Today, I read Lt. Col. William Astore's essay at, and urge you to follow the link and read it yourself.

I quote here the colonel's most cogent point since he makes it far more eloquently than I could paraphrase it:

"Being 'the best soldiers' meant that senior German leaders...always expected them to prevail. The mentality was: 'We're number one. How can we possibly lose unless we quit -- or those [fill in your civilian quislings of choice] stab us in the back?'

"If this mentality sounds increasingly familiar, it's because it's the one we ourselves have internalized in these last years [Note: I would argue we've been internalizing it for the last 50 years]. German warfighters and their leaders knew no limitations until it was too late for them to recover from ceaseless combat, imperial overstretch, and economic collapse.

"Today, the U.S. military, and by extension American culture, is caught in a similar bind. After all, if we truly believe our to be 'the world's best military' can we possibly be losing in Iraq or Afghanistan? And, if the 'impossible' somehow happens, how can our military be to blame? If our 'warfighters' are indeed 'the best,' someone else must have betrayed them -- appeasing politicians, lily-livered liberals, duplicitous and weak-willed allies like the increasingly recalcitrant Iraqis, you name it.

"Today, our military is arguably the world's best. Certainly, it's the world's most powerful.... But what does it say about our leaders [Note: and our citizenry] that they are so taken with this form of power? And why exactly is it so good to be the 'best' at this? Just ask a German military a warrior-state that went berserk in a febrile quest for 'full spectrum dominance.'"

The "best military in the world"? We can't even defeat two third-rate countries who had no significant armies to begin with.

And do we really want to be known for our outstanding ability to bomb civilians back to the Stone Age?

12 July 2008

"Celebrating" the Fourth of July

Last Thursday (July 10), I was listening to Randi Rhodes' show on my local radio station. The topic was the abominable FISA Amendment bill that our hopelessly spineless Congress passed the day before. In all seriousness, a caller asked, "Except that it's unconstitutional, what's the big deal about warrantless wiretapping?" (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist.)

It's times like this that I want to get that lobotomy and just join brain-dead fools like this guy in their ignorant bliss.

That or move to Canada.

Honestly, there was nothing in the original FISA law as it stood before 2001 to stop Bush from wiretapping pretty much anyone he damn well pleased. Out of nearly 20,000 requested FISA warrants, literally a handful were refused -- five! Of course, to this administration even the possibility of someone checking its authority is anathema, and, hence, the need to eviscerate an already suspect law.

David Bromwich's post on HuffPo eloquently presents the case for why July 9's vote is a disaster for this country. Why should we trust any president to voluntarily relinquish any powers he's able to squeeze out of supine Congresses and Supreme Courts? Why should we depend upon Obama's promise to "fix" the legislation when he becomes president?

Joseph Galloway, of McClatchey, poses two pertinent questions in his excellent column here:

How can even one senator on either side of the aisle in good conscience vote in favor of this law that does nothing to enhance our security and everything to diminish our rights as a free people?

How can both men who seek to become our next president cast such a vote when both should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder declaring that they would govern by our consent and with our approval, not by wielding the coercive and corrosive and corrupt powers that King George III and his latter-day namesake from Texas thought are theirs by divine right?

George Bush broke the supreme law of the land (and there's evidence he was doing it before 9/11, the ostensible reason for amending the law in the first place). That we haven't stripped him of his office, not to mention his freedom, shows just how far we've fallen from the ideals of the Founders.

[Addendum: I just came across this op-ed from Chris Hedges that ran in the LA Times on Friday. Just another reason to oppose everything this administration does.]