Posts Tagged ‘US Constitution’

New Constitutional Convention

December 15, 2013

Over at Daily Kos, they are really worried about the possibility of a National Convention to amend the constitution. They explain their concerns in a typically classy and well mannered way in a email I received.

I know many of you don’t pay much attention to the right-wing noise machine, and when you do dismiss what you hear for obvious reaons — like they’re generally full of shit.

Well, that’s all true, but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous.  After all, many liberals and progressives laughed at and dismissed Rush Limbaugh and the other right-wing talk radio shock jocks as clowns, back in the 90s, but look how much influence he has had and how much damage he’s done to our civil discourse.  These things have a way of flying under the radar until they reach a critical mass, then they explode to cause no end of trouble.

Reaons? What’s spell check? If they really want to know who has done the most damage to our civil discourse I would recommend they read The Real Radio Hatemongers,  a publication put out by the Media Research Council. It’s a little old but I doubt if the vile rhetoric of the left has changed much.

That’s why I’m writing today about a growing movement in far-right circles that sounds like a bunch of crackpots, but could actually pose a serious danger to our democracy.  Spurred on by Mark Levin and others, there is a grass-roots conservative movement to convene an Article V convention of the States to amend the Constitution by enacting so-called “Liberty Amendments” that would eliminate the popular election of Senators, require a balanced federal budget, prohibit the federal government from any activity conducted by the states (including healthcare), effectively eliminate the commerce clause and the general welfare clause, enact term limits on judges and enable the States to overturn judicial decisions, impose nation-wide voter id laws, and enshrine several other far-right hobbyhorses as Constitutional imperatives.  And this movement has support from people who should know better, like state representatives from Indiana and Georgia.  While obviously on the fringe now, these sorts of things have a tendency to become mainstream conservative thought if unchecked.  Follow me below the squiggle for more details.

There is a meeting of representatives from at least 30 states scheduled just three days from now, Saturday, December 7, at the library in Mount Vernon.  (Is nothing sacred?  George Washington is probably spinning in his grave even as we speak.)  Elected officials will be among the attendees: David Long, President of the Indiana State Senate; and Jason Spencer, Georgia state representative.

In fact, the state of Indiana has actually enacted legislation to facilitate the appointment of delegates to such a convention, and to govern their activities.

To take a step back, I should explain that Article V of the Constitution provides two ways to amend the Constitution.  The first, with which we are familiar because it is the way all amendments have been enacted to date, is for two-thirds of the House and Senate to vote for an amendment, which is then sent to the States for ratification (which requires approval by three-fourths of the States).  But alternatively, if two-thirds (34) of the States so request to Congress, Congress must then call a convention to propose amendments (which must then be ratified, again, by three-fourths of the States).  Although the procedures for such a convention are unclear, the folks currently pushing this take the position that such a convention would be a creature of the State legislatures, with delegates appointed by the legislatures and bound by their instructions.

Yea Indiana! Actually I suspect that George Washington would approve of most of these “right wing hobby horses”. It is important to remember that the men who made up the Constitutional Convention did not really intend to create a “democracy”. The word democracy did not have the positive connotations it has today. Instead it meant something closer to mob rule. One of the fears of the founding fathers was of a tyranny of the majority, the idea that a majority could vote away the rights and property of a minority.

English: Painting, 1856, by Junius Brutus Stea...

Time to meet again? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The intent of the framers was a balanced system based on an idealized view of the British constitution and the government of the Roman Republic. This system was to include a monarchical element, a president elected by an electoral college, an aristocratic element, a Senate with senators selected by state legislatures and functioning as representatives from the states to the federal government, and a democratic element, the House of Representatives which was elected by and represented the people. Over time, this system has become more democratic and yet has functioned less well to guarantee liberty, especially in recent years.

The procedure that Daily Kos paints as somehow illegitimate is completely constitutional though it has not been done before. It is less irregular than the Senate changing centuries old rules to suit the political party in the majority or amending the constitution through judicial reinterpretation by activist judges. Despite their description of the liberty amendments as far right fringe, I suspect that a large plurality of people would support many of them, perhaps even a majority. If this were really a crack-pot fringe movement, I seriously doubt this movement would be any particular threat to anybody. I don’t think that very many people believe the country is heading in the right direction and more and more are coming to the opinion that some kind of drastic action is needed to halt and even reverse our slow slide into despotism. That, of course, is precisely what Daily Kos fears most.

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Learning from the Confederate Constitution

March 24, 2013

Since the Confederate States of America only lasted four years, I doubt that many Americans know very much about that short-lived country’s constitution. Given that the Confederate States was a nation formed for the express purpose of preserving slavery, perhaps few would believe that that constitution could be, in any way, an improvement on the United States constitution. Yet the Confederate constitution had a few interesting features worth noting.

For the most part, the Confederate constitution is simply a word for word copy of the older US constitution. This should come as no surprise since the “founding fathers” of the Confederacy still considered themselves loyal Americans and had no serious opposition to the forms of the existing United States government. Their quarrel was with the political policies of the rising Republican party. They opposed the Republicans’ anti-slavery position, naturally, but many in the South also opposed the expanded role of the central government favored by many Republicans at that time. The changes they made in writing their constitution reflected those concerns.

Slavery is not explicitly mentioned in the US constitution. The authors, somewhat shamefacedly, only made vague references to “persons held in service”, which could just have easily meant Whites held in indentured servitude, as Black slaves. That constitution had a provision which made importation of slaves from Africa illegal in 1808, without quite admitting that it was slaves that were being imported. The Confederate constitution, by contrast, explicitly prohibited the international slave trade, while at the same time, included explicit protections of the institution of slavery in the Confederate States. If the founding fathers of the United States were ashamed of  slavery and hoped it would go away, the Confederate founding fathers affected to be proud of their peculiar institution and tried to preserve it in perpetuity.

The Confederate constitution also seems to provided for a somewhat weakened central government and had more protections for states rights. The Confederate Congress was prohibited from levying tariffs for the protection of domestic industries, a sore point with Southerners, and was also forbidden to appropriate money for internal improvements. While the preamble of the US constitution stated its purpose was to form a more perfect union, the Confederate constitution emphasized the sovereign and independent character of each state. Whatever the merits of a less centralized government, this attitude did not help the Confederate States during the Civil War. In general the states of the South tended to go their own way and not coordinate their war efforts far more than the Northern states.

Eric Rauch of the Political Outcast blog has noted that the Confederate constitution included term limits for the President, almost a century before the adoption of the twenty-second amendment in the US Constitution.

One of my main talking points in the area of politics (and anyone even remotely acquainted with me knows that these are few and far between) is the issue of term limits. I have long been a supporter of them—at all levels of government. One of the brilliant moves taken by the writers of the Confederate Constitution of 1861 was to limit the President’s term to six years, with no chance of re-election (Article 2, Section 1). This assured that new executive leadership would be had every six years. Unfortunately, even the Confederate Constitution didn’t limit Congressional terms.

The primary way that the electorate is not served though, is through endless re-elections and non-term-limited career politicians. If all government office-holders knew that their time was short, we would see far less partisan wrangling and closed-door deal making. If an individual knew that his political “career” carried an official expiration date, he would less inclined to make political decisions based solely on his own self-preservation. If nothing else, it would certainly be worth trying in deference to what has already been tried. The Confederate constitutional convention was able to learn from more than 70 years of experience under the U.S. Constitution in the drafting of its own, and now we have the benefit of more than 220 years. Term limits on the President is good, but it is not enough. We need term limits across the board.

There are disadvantages to term limits, but I think that trying to prevent the formation of a permanent political caste is worth trying. The current system of having legislators spend their entire adult lives in political office with little realistic chance of actually losing an election really doesn’t seem to work very well.

Another idea that we should adopt from the Confederate constitution might be to require that every law relates to only one subject. This would prevent the use of riders, those pernicious measures buried in the middle of bills in the hope that they will slide through without anyone noticing. If we could amend the constitution with something like this;

Every law or resolution having the force of law, shall relate to but one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.

it might go a long way toward making legislation clearer and more honest.

 

 


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