Sunday, October 21, 2012

Forming a More Perfect Union

Our founding fathers were very smart people. They managed to put together a solid governing document which has more or less stood the test of time. (Acknowledging, of course, that some decisions were made to get people to agree, not necessarily because it was a better arrangement.) But for as smart as they were, they weren’t geniuses, nor were they clairvoyant—and they knew that. This is why they allowed for the Constitution to be amended.

In my opinion, our government has accumulated some serious flaws which, if not immediately fatal, do have the potential to drag our country down. As a result, I propose the following draft amendments to the United States Constitution. I realize, of course, that many (if not all) of these ideas are not new, and variations of them have been proposed before.

Without further ado…

Amendment 1: Electoral System

Section 1. Funding. To uphold the principle of freedom of speech provided by the First Amendment and limit the undue influence of single wealthy individuals, the Legislature is empowered to set reasonable restrictions on the amount of money a person may donate to candidates and organizations involved in promoting political action. In addition, these candidates and organizations shall only receive money directly from individual citizens, not from organizations.
If monetary donations are free speech, as was decided in the Citizens United case, then someone with more money has more ability to speak than someone with less money. While this is an unfortunate and inescapable fact, this runs contrary to the principle that everyone should be able to participate equally in our government. By restricting political donations to those originating directly from an individuals, and placing reasonable limits on the amounts that can be contributed, the ability to hide the money trail in politics is eliminated, and the overwhelming influence of the wealthy can be moderated.
Section 2. Voting method. To provide a check on an entrenched two-party system, elections for federal offices shall now employ instant runoff voting, whereby each voter may select a first, second, etc. choice for the office. If no candidate has a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the lowest vote-tally is dropped and their votes re-apportioned to the voter’s second choice. This process is repeated until a candidate attains a majority. If no majority is reached (which may happen if many people do not select alternative choices), the candidate with a plurality of votes wins.
No longer will you have to feel like you need to vote for one of the major party candidates just because you don’t want the other major party candidate to win by splitting the vote. If your preferred candidate doesn’t get enough support, your voice will still be heard.
Section 3. Electoral College. Electoral votes shall be automatically tallied, rather than cast by electors. For each state, two electoral votes shall be apportioned to the winner of the state, and the rest shall be proportionately divided according to the first-choice vote totals, with conflicts resolved using the instant run-off results. In the case that no candidate attains a majority in the Electoral College, the instant run-off procedure shall be applied to the electoral votes, using the state instant runoff results to reassign that state’s electoral votes from the dropped candidate to the remaining candidates.
Why am I keeping the Electoral College at all? For a long time I was a proponent of getting rid of it, in favor of a straight popular vote, in good part because it seemed a great injustice that Al Gore won the total national vote count but lost due to the mechanics of the Electoral College.

However, in considering the situation more fully, I think it does serve an important purpose, by making sure that a presidential candidate pays attention to all areas of the country. A rural state with a lower population is no less important to the union than a highly urban state with a larger population. The system ensures that the unique issues of lower population areas do not become irrelevant to national politics.

At the same time, the winner-take-all model the Electoral College currently uses has the opposite effect, inordinately focusing attention on a small handful of “battleground” states. Breaking up the electoral votes helps to achieve this.

What I’ve proposed above certainly is not the first proposal to reform the system. I would like to discuss alternatives more in depth in a future post.
Section 4. “Lame duck” period. Except in the case of re-election, from the day before Election Day through inauguration, no purely executive powers (e.g. pardons, executive orders, etc.) may take effect until approved by the President-elect, except for those which cannot be delayed, though they may be fully reversed when the President-elect takes office.
The idea here to smooth out the transition between one President and the next, and to limit the ability of an out-going President to make certain decisions that aren’t open to the public discussion of an election. Given the timing, simply shortening the “lame duck” period might be infeasible, but would also help address the problem.
Section 5. Disputes. Confidence in our electoral systems being critical to a functioning Republic, in the case of any dispute involving a federal election, deference must be given to determining the will of the people, rather than to speed of resolution.

Amendment 2: Military Power

Section 1. War powers. The President shall not place any armed forces into combat without a declaration of war by Congress, unless there is an imminent threat against the United States or an ally, as bound by treaty, which necessitates immediate action. Congress shall also have the power to order an end to a declared war or to direct the President to seek a diplomatic solution. Military power being the most important and dangerous power of the President, violation of this section is grounds for immediate impeachment.
Too many times since World War II, we have entered into combat based entirely on the President’s command and the passive acquiescence of Congress (or bullied acquiescence—such as the “supporting the troops” bludgeon we saw with Iraq). And I’ve had enough with watering-down war to “conflicts” or “military actions.”

How would this work with Al Qaeda and special ops, such as the one that took out Osama Bin Laden? The declaration of war (or a later addendum) would have to specify that such missions are allowed.
Section 2. National Guard. The militia (National Guard) of the States, being necessary to assist in domestic emergencies and defense, shall not be drawn upon for foreign combat without the express authorization of Congress and the agreement of the Governors of the various States.
The National Guard was never intended to play an extended role fighting foreign battles, especially when those battles are not directly threatening the United States. We need the Guard here at home unless absolutely necessary. One of the reasons why the response to Hurricane Katrina was so lackluster was that so much of the National Guard’s resources had been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan (References: link, link).
Section 3. Private military. Any private forces in use in a war zone must be explicitly authorized by the President for that conflict, are limited to defensive security roles only, and shall be placed under the command of the United States military.
The increasing use of private military in war is an issue, especially as far as accountability is concerned. I’m not sure what the best course is, but if they are to be used, I feel they must be under the command of the military.
Section 4. Military spending. Funds allocated to the military shall not exceed 10% of total federal expenditures. This restriction is lifted when war has been declared. Short-term projects may be authorized and funded beyond this limit during peacetime, as in order to modernize the military or to prepare for a war which may be looming but not yet declared.

Amendment 3: Freedoms

Section 1. Travel. The right of citizens to travel freely within the boundaries of the United States shall not be infringed without due process of law.
This is specified in Federal law as an extension of other freedoms, but it is worth spelling out to help combat the creeping growth of the TSA and Homeland Security.
Section 2. Communication. The right of citizens to access modern communications methods shall not be infringed without due process of law. Further, Congress’s responsibility to establish post offices and roads shall be expanded to include establishing and expanding modern communications infrastructure throughout the country.
See also my previous post on modernizing the U.S. Postal Service.
Section 3. Labor. No person shall be prevented from forming or joining a labor union, nor shall any person be required to join a union.
I fully recognize the importance of unions in ensuring that employers do not overreach. But I also recognize that in many industries, we’ve generally reached good balances, and if a worker does not see any current benefit from joining a union, I don’t believe they should have to.

Amendment 4: Miscellaneous

Section 1. Pledges. No officer of government or member of Congress shall enter into any pledge or oath other than an oath of office or an oath of honesty.

Section 2. Term Limits. A person may only serve for three terms (6 years) as a member of the House of Representatives, and two terms (12 years) as a member of the Senate. Those who are in office when this Amendment is adopted shall be considered to be in their first term, and anyone appointed to serve more than half of a term shall be considered to have served for one term.
A particular political office should not be a career choice, but something that someone undertakes to better the nation for a time. The more fresh blood that cycles through government, the less chance there is of stagnation in old ideas and conflicts, and the fewer fixed and powerful individuals are available for lobbyists to focus on.
Section 3. Nominations. Nominations made by the President for an executive or judicial appointment shall be approved or rejected within 60 days of the nomination being made (while Congress is in session). If the Senate fails to do this, the nomination takes effect under the same rules as recess appointments.
Far too many judicial and executive agency vacancies are left empty because of obstruction by a hostile Congress, specifically a filibustering minority in the Senate. This directly interferes with the ability of our government to function in very basic ways (backlog of court cases preventing speedy trials, a new agency unable to take action). As a result, we need to give the benefit of the doubt to the President as acting on behalf of those who elected him. Of course, it would be better if the Senate made filibusters and holds harder to do, but nothing has actually happened on that front despite all the talk about it.
Section 4. Auditing. Every ten years, a full audit of government programs must be conducted to look for and address inefficiencies and unnecessary redundancies. The audits may be broken up and spread across the 10 year period, and must include input from the public.
Money and time are both things that government can waste. In part because there is no profit pressure, minimizing these things tends to not be a top priority. We could use a good feedback mechanism to correct the worst inefficiencies that creep in, and especially to give consumers of government services a direct way to impact how well that service performs.

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