Our Constitution, the Constitution for the United States of 1789, sucks.
There. I’ve said it.
It’s hard for me to admit that our Constitution sucks. I wrote an essay, way back when, translating our Constitution into plain English. At the time I held an underlying assumption that the Constitution of 1789 was a pretty good document, a reasonable design for a government. After all, it worked (more or less) for 240 years. It didn’t work perfectly; there were horrors, slavery, especially, and its bastard son Jim Crow. There were other failings. In spite of those, at the time I wrote my essay, our Constitution had allowed us to make some progress. Black people are formally acknowledged to be people with the same nominal rights as other people, nobody can own them and they can vote. Legislated Jim Crow has been abolished, and the sneakier, non-legislative forms of it seemed to be abating as well. Women can vote, and are increasingly being recognized as equal participants in America.
But now it all seems to have gone off the rails. Armed paramilitary gangs swagger in the streets threatening citizens. A candidate just ran for US Senate on a platform and lifelong record of Christianist Theocracy, right out in full public view, and only lost (and just barely) because he is a publicly acknowledged pedophile. Police routinely kill unarmed citizens, particularly black ones, with impunity. Tens of thousands of Americans are murdered with firearms annually, many of them in mass groups by total strangers.
A foreign nation has been brought in by our sitting Congress and new President to install and help operate a psuedo-democratic racist theocratic plutocracy. In full public view. As seen on TV. Two thirds of America knows it. Our Constitution does not give that roughly 65 percent of Americans any peaceful means to throw the bums out, for instance in an unscheduled election. If all else was good in our Constitution, that one flaw can now be seen to be fatal.
Another serious flaw in our current government as constituted is the unitary co-equal Presidency. A powerful co-equal executive branch is not consistent with representative government. But the Presidency is nowhere near as destructive as the most deadly flaw in our Constitution: the inclusion of semi-autonomous states represented as quasi-nations in our Federal government.
The Senate exists as the “voice of the states.” States should have no voice. States are not living conscious entities which require representation in the national government. Voters within the states, counted equally nationwide, are the only legitimate voices which need to be heard in government by the people. Parochial competition between states harms the nation as a whole. An incredible amount of money is wasted annually on interstate competition for employers, businesses, and jobs. Our system of semi-autonomous states has blown up once, horribly, and is chronically on the verge of doing it again. Semi-autonomous states made the Civil War possible. Slavery made it inevitable.
Granted there has to be some form of local government. You can’t run a big country entirely from the top. Picking up the trash, paving back streets, and many other tasks are best done locally. That said, our current form of local government based on semi-autonomous states is untenable. The states have too much power to interfere with national governance. It is not reasonable to enable a local power to decide whether to participate in a national medical care system, nor to choose or limit which citizens get to vote. National laws apply nationally.
We got the Constitution we have because 13 literally and absolutely separate sovereign nations – the former colonies – had to be sweet-talked into giving up much of their sovereignty. One result is that little states (at that time little sovereign nations) like Delaware and Rhode Island got as much effective power in national legislation as did major concentrations of people and enterprise like New York and Pennsylvania. The names have been changed but the principle still applies, as is particularly visible in our Senate and Electoral College. Originally slave states also got extra representation in government, but fortunately slave states long ago ceased to exist.
We can no longer succeed as a competing aggregation of semi-autonomous semi-nations. Either we are One Nation, Indivisible, as we are expected to piously intone at public events, or we aren’t. As currently constituted and governed we aren’t. I don’t think there has been a year since at least 1980 when there wasn’t some state threatening to secede. Maybe since 1865. It’s getting louder and louder.
It’s not the Electoral College that prevents representative government in the United States, it’s semi-autonomous states and the Senate. The resulting vastly unequal representation, aggravated by an attitude of every state for itself, makes impossible any democratic balance in any law written, any budget, any debt, any public service.
The Senate has got to go. The Electoral College goes with it. That, by itself, will let a lot of wind out of the semi-autonomous states problem. But not all of it.
The Federal government must finance and run its own elections. The unabashed public squabble in various states over how they can best disenfranchise entire classes of voters speaks for itself. It has gone on since the first election. The Fifteenth Amendment failed to stop it. The civil right laws of 1965 did too. Enough is enough.
Self government at a national scale is a representative process. The people elect representatives who gather in structured groups to hammer out agreement on how to best care for the voters’ shared needs. A legislature is inherently the primary functional unit of representative government. Gathered legislators make all laws, levy all taxes, create and fund all agencies, write all budgets, decide all priorities, create and pay all debts, and must be held to account by voters for their actions. The most appropriate chief executive to carry out the legislature’s decisions is one selected by the legislature for that purpose, typically known as a Prime Minister. The executive’s one critical function is to put the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives, into action.
The President should be a figurehead, like the Queen. We should send her or him to the funerals of world leaders. Have her give a State of the Union Speech. Make suggestions to Congress.
The only way to run a representative government for the benefit of the citizens is to have the representatives right out in front, legislating, governing, and looking the people in the eye.
Every single highly prosperous developed country on earth today with broadly equal, predominantly healthy, happy citizens is a parliamentary republic. Parliaments stand right up in front of voters and do everything that gets done. Parliament chooses the everyday chief executive, because Legislatures run republics. It cannot be any other way. Rule by one person is not a republic, it’s a monarchy. Mon means one.
If the chief executive (Prime Minister) and the rest of Parliament can’t agree on a path for government and pass legislation accordingly, new elections are held. If a Parliamentary government fails to function the voters replace it. Serious governments do not indulge in gridlock or government shutdowns. People who govern themselves responsibly do not permit it.
Around the world, nations with unitary, co-equal Presidencies are in all cases poorer, weaker, have poorer health outcomes, and are less stable than nations governed by a Parliamentary system with legislature and legislative executive / Prime Minister. Yes, I include the United States. Our supposed riches are, today, accessible to fewer than 1 out of every 10 Americans.
Our system is not working. Other systems do work, none perfectly, but many better.
Here’s what I propose:
- Unicameral (one chamber) legislature, with 601 representatives. (House plus Senate currently puts us at 535.) Call it The People’s House, as they originally called our House of Representatives. Or call it Congress. It is, in accepted terms, a Parliament.
- The chief executive and head of government is the Prime Minister, selected by majority vote in Parliament.
- Aside from the Judiciary, all Cabinet, agency, and diplomatic positions will be filled by the House, as nominated by Prime Minister, or through normal channels established by the House.
- All 601 districts for Parliament shall be compact, as uniform as possible, drawn using the best available technology to create a body representative of the voters at large. Post-census redistricting will be nationwide, by majority agreement of all parties in Parliament. Local governments will not participate in drawing districts. District maps will require approval by majority vote in every party represented in Parliament to take effect. State lines will not be considered when drawing legislative districts.
- Congress / Parliament may make no law or rule preferring any political party over any other party, currently existing or not, in elections, access to polls or voters, or representation in the legislature.
- The first Congress / Parliament will meet under Robert’s Rules of Order. The legislature may subsequently make its own rules of procedure by majority vote of all parties represented.
- 60 percent of voters can call a nationwide election at any time. Votes calling for Elections (only) may be made electronically. All seats in Congress / Parliament will be contested at every election. There is no fixed minimum term, with a 5 year maximum between elections. No term limits except having to stand for reelection.
- Federal government funds all elections. Money is not speech and will not be treated as such, in any way at any level.
- The President shall be “Head of State” but not “Head of Government.” The President shall be directly elected by popular vote every five years without regard to national or legislative election dates. The President may be called on to represent the nation in formal Affairs of State, The President may serve unlimited terms. The President may address the People’s House from time to time to suggest legislation for national needs as she or he sees fit. The People’s House will consider the President’s suggestions in public debate. The President’s sole formal power in government shall be nomination of national judges.
- The Judiciary shall be independent from any other branch of government. The President shall nominate judges, subject to People’s House confirmation. Each nominee will receive an up-or-down vote by the entire House unless she or he withdraws from consideration.
- There will be no presumed right to present lies as facts or news.
- Since law enforcement and national defense are legitimate duties of government, there will be no presumed right for the people to own or possess firearms. Parliament may, but is not required to, create legislation to extend this privilege to citizens on a case-by-case or systemic basis.
- All citizens are registered to vote at the same time they get their Social Security Card, typically at birth, in infancy, or at naturalization. Each citizen over the age of majority, by Social Security number, may and will be expected to vote once in every election. There may be sanctions for failure to vote.
- Election days will be national holidays.
- All votes for all offices will be rendered on paper and available (at minimum) for hand counting.
- This Constitution may be amended by the following process:
- A majority of votes of all parties represented in the Congress / Parliament at the time is required to propose an amendment.
- Ratification by 2/3 of voters is required to accept any proposed Amendment.
- No religious law or rule may be applied by government. No religious text or belief will be taught to any person under government auspices. Religion is an individual prerogative and will not be encouraged or discouraged by government.
- A person as defined under this document is understood to be a human being, born and living. No other entity shall be considered a person in terms of rights or citizenship.
- No law or practice may disadvantage citizens relative to one another on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual preference, or previous conviction or incarceration.
- Persons in the United States may not advocate or encourage the armed overthrow of, rebellion against, or violence against, the government of the United States. No person may take up arms against any agent of the United States Government for any reason whatsoever.
- The United States under this Constitution retains all lands, properties, funds, debts and obligations of the United States under the previous Constitution. The United States shall manage its real and other property as Congress / Parliament directs.
- The right to be secure in persons, properties, relationships, and private consensual sexual behaviors shall not be restricted.
- Property shall not be taken for public use without fair payment. Restricting specific uses of property as directed by Congress / Parliament will not be construed to constitute taking.
- The right to privacy in reproductive choices shall not be infringed.
- Medical care will be understood to be a human right. No resident in America will be allowed to suffer or die by reason of denial of normally available medical care. No resident shall suffer financial hardship as a result of medical care.
- Free speech shall be subject to the following limitations:
- Hate speech and threatening speech are not protected.
- Speech advocating the overthrow of, rebellion against, or violence against the United States shall not be protected.
- False commercial advertising is not protected.
- False political advertising is not protected.
- A reasonable standard of fact will be required of all programming presented as news or public fact.
- Individual and group religious beliefs and practices are entirely protected but may not be used as a basis for public policy.
- The people shall have right to petition the government for redress of grievances. This petition may be taken to the courts for resolution.
- The people may gather or associate freely. Violence is not protected.
The current preamble is as good as can be created:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Personal speech, broadcast speech, hate speech, and empirical lies must be carefully addressed by the framers of the full text of the next Constitution. No nation can govern itself successfully without reliance on empirical fact as a basis for decision making. Hate speech destroys societies. That said, freedom of opinion and personal expression must be protected. It will require great care to clarify a set of workable, fair practices.
This is a broad overview. The idea of a republic is as a system for representative self government. Abraham Lincoln defined the ideal republic perfectly: Government of the people, by the people, for the people. Currently there is no pretense of such a thing in the United States.
How would we get from where we are to the new Constitution? I’m not sure. However, there is currently a move afoot to call a Constitutional Convention. True, the move is mainly rooted in the depths of the far right fringe, financed by desperate, emotionally starving, unquenchably grasping rich white people, but – we outnumber them. By a sizable margin.
I’d recommend we keep our eyes open, and plan for all contingencies.