Last week, a Washington Post editorial cartoon showed an elderly couple celebrating a man’s birthday. Nice.
His name is “U.S. Constitution.” His wife tells him, “Some people are whispering about whether you are too old for the job.”
A lot has changed since he was born in 1787. But the Constitution has stopped being updated and amended for fear that changing anything in it may open the way to repealing some its best parts, like the First Amendment.
Though some people, calling themselves “originalists,” want the Constitution to be interpreted just as written centuries ago, it has changed and will keep on changing.
Take the president. The Constitution’s drafters worried about the power of the new chief executive, because of America’s harsh treatment under the British king. So they gave Congress the first seat in government and supplied it with the ability to place checks on the president.
Could they have imagined that the power of Congress “to regulate commerce with foreign nations” would result in it turning over to the president complete authority to raise and lower tariffs on billions of dollars in trade? That’s what happened.
Could they have imagined that a president, elected by less than half the voters, would pack the federal courts with partisan allies, giving them lifetime appointments subject only to automatic approval by a Senate majority representing less than half the people? That has happened.
The American president is closer to being king than the constitutional drafters wanted.
Meanwhile, American voters came to play a larger role in the system of government. National issues like slavery, world wars, and economic depression with news of them spread by better communications led to broad expressions of public opinion that could not be ignored.
Constitutional change without changing the Constitution. That’s the theme of the past three columns in this series. The proposed changes would increase the ability of Congress to better check the presidency and strengthen the power of popular democracy over the federal government.
The proposals are (1) to increase the size of the House of Representatives, (2) to ensure that Senate majorities include senators representing half the population, and (3) the election of the president by national popular vote. The governing rule: one person, one vote.
In a deeply partisan system, these measures would at least ensure that federal decisions are made by leaders – from the powerful president to the rawest representative – who represent a majority of Americans.
These changes would make compromise necessary, reducing partisan wars. The people demand decisions from their government, which is only possible through compromise. The system itself is threatened if government cannot make decisions the people support.
Beyond these modest reforms of federal institutions to make them responsive to the will of the majority, members of Congress themselves can restore constitutional checks and balances.
While voters may give low marks to a president, they have almost completely lost confidence in Congress. Its popularity in the latest survey is 17 percent. People may like their own senator or representative, but they dislike Congress.
Why? Their representatives and senators help resolve personal government problems, bring in federal money and show up at local events. But Congress does little. Its members often avoid responsibility by shifting it to the president and bureaucracy. They seek to get re-elected by leaving few fingerprints.
The fact that the Senate won’t ratify a treaty on any subject clearly makes the point. President Obama joined with other world leaders in an agreement to forestall Iran’s nuclear development. It was not a treaty, allowing senators to avoid taking a position on it. And Obama avoided rejection of the deal.
That made it easy for President Trump to withdraw from the agreement. He simply made use of the power the Senate ceded to Obama rather than keeping for itself. Trump repeatedly uses powers previously granted to presidents, but without observing the understandings about their use Congress thought it had.
The most important goal for many members of Congress is getting re-elected. They avoid taking leadership and pander to the lowest common denominator to hold onto their seats. They cater to interest groups that finance their campaigns. Such groups exist mostly to oppose government action.
Political leadership means taking risks, even the risk of losing re-election. The problem is that members regard being in Congress as their permanent profession and not as a limited period of public service.
The first reform is for Congress to recover its lost powers, carelessly given to the president, and stop the practice. That reform should start now.
Note: This is the fourth and last of a series on how to reform the federal government without amending the Constitution.