Saturday, May 4, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: Remedies (Part One)

The National Initiative Amendment (NIA) is the only way to resolve our Constitutions problems in the long run. There are a number of stop-gap measures we can take without amending the constitution, but these would be just as hard to pass as the NIA, so there would be little point in wasting our energy on them. Once we give the power to amend the Constitution back to We the People, there are a number of measures we can take to restore the balance between competing interests.

  1. Increase the number of Senators

The Constitution provides for two senators to represent each state. This has led to many problems, chief among them the fact that California, with 35 million residents, has the same number of senators and the same relative power as Delaware, with under a million. This imbalance leads to defeats for issues of interest to large states, such as gun control.

The U.S. Senate was modeled on the House of Lords. Like the Senate, the Lords became a barrier to passing bills for the common good. The House of Commons partially resolved the problem by increasing the number of Lords. We, the People, could resolve the Senate problem by adding another 100 Senators to be elected at large. By definition, these Senators would represent a larger constituency than any of the current Senators. Small states would still have disproportionate representation, but nothing could stop one of the small-state senators from running at large. Such a candidate must appeal to a broader electorate than one running in a small, homogeneous state.

Other, more drastic measures may be taken. The Senate could be abolished altogether, or Senators could retain the ability to block bills (which is their primary function now) but only for three years.

  1. Elect the Supreme Court

Life appointment for Supreme Court Justices was intended to free them from political pressures, giving them liberty to vote their conscience. This idea never worked very well, since the Justices are nearly always members of the elite classes. Recently, the idea of apolitical Justices must appear a cruel hoax. Observers can usually predict which justices will join a majority. Presidents appoint younger and younger justices to prevent the opposing party from gaining a majority on the court. Retiring justices choose the terms of like-minded presidents to give up their seats. The Court has actually become a third legislative body, one with even less variety of opinion than the Senate.

We, the People, should make the Court responsible to us by forcing the Justices to run for election every seven years. Renowned jurists who can't get seats on the current, highly politicized court, should be happy to run for such a prestigious post. Presidents could still fill vacancies with the consent of the Senate, but they would be forced to make better choices if they want their appointees to withstand an electoral challenge.

  1. Normalize the Laws

Another measure would be to remove the appellate responsibilities from the court, or abolish the federal bench entirely. The Federal Bench exists side-by-side with the state courts, with many of the same responsibilities. All courts should be combined into a single, national system of district courts and appellate bodies. Instead of striking down laws they deem improper, the judges in this system could replace the offending laws with others that have been passed in other states. Many states have similar legal codes already. This blending of federal with state authority would discourage state legislatures from passing frivolous laws that pander to the electorate.

This system would also discourage well-heeled groups like ALEC from changing the laws, state by state, to favor corporations and the wealthy. Judges would be free to ignore changes made by ALEC and other groups in favor of more moderate laws.

Lawyers should be allowed to practice in any state, since the laws would, over time, tend to be similar. State Bar Associations would lose their monopoly control of the legal profession. Legal professionals could practice in any state without fearing law suits from the State Bar. The cost of legal assistance would decrease, enabling ordinary people to better afford lawyers.

  1. Abolish the Electoral College

We, the People, should elect presidents by majority vote. If no candidate achieves a majority, we should hold a runoff election. Third parties would be able to participate in elections without fear that their participation would defeat candidates with whom they agree on most issues.

There is currently a National Popular Vote movement (NPV) to sidestep the electoral college by passing laws in each of the states. These laws commit the states to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who wins the majority of all votes cast in all states. NPV flips current presidential campaigning on its head. Candidates would spend most of their time and money in the largest states instead of in the key swing states.They would have to take positions on important issues instead of avoiding them.

NPV avoids the Amendment process but ends up with laws that can be repealed without using the Amendment process. It also fails to institute a runoff system, as described above. It does not encourage third party candidates, since it will rob them of any electoral votes they might have gotten using the current electoral system. This could lead to appeals through the courts, throwing elections into confusion for other reasons, such as when a third-party argues that the anti-electoral college law prevents third parties from getting the votes necessary to appear on ballots. Current election laws are a tangled thicket that may cause unforeseen problems.

The instability of the NPV, which could be undone by the votes of only a few states (assuming it ever passes) will lead to more electoral confusion, not less. The supporters of this plan have a good idea, but the execution would likely be chaotic and reversible within a few years. NPV will go into effect when the states that have adopted it have enough electoral votes.

NPV now has about 50 per cent of the states necessary to put its plan into action. From here on, however, it will run into the same problem of the electoral college, only in reverse. Each state that passes NPV will now be a state that benefits from the current situation.

Another movement, much less realistic, to reform the electoral college would divide the nation into 50 new states with equal populations. The logistics of this proposal make it impossible. State governments are huge, unwieldy bureaucracies that have taken root in one place for up to 200 years. Moving one of these bureaucracies to a new location would create a complex mess and cost a fortune. Moving 50 of them might take another 200 years.
  1. Undo the Corporate Strangle Hold on Our Laws

In the late nineteenth century the Supreme Court discovered that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied to corporations, though they couldn't figure out how to use it to help African-Americans. In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to regulate corporations. The Courts permitted the Sherman Act to be used against Unions, which it declared illegal combinations as defined by the law. In United States v. E. C. Knight Company (1895), the Supreme Court upheld the appeal of the American Sugar Refining Company, which controlled 98 per cent of sugar refining in the U.S., because this control did not constitute a restraint of trade.

During the last years of the twentieth century, Congress responded to public concern about corporate lobbyists influence in politics by passing modest reforms. In Citizens United v. FEC (2004), the Supreme Court reversed much of what reformers had accomplished. In his dissent, Justice Stephens cited earlier Court decisions that recognized that corporate spending on elections should be viewed as a business transaction designed for no other purpose than profit-making. Corporations unfairly influence elections with vast sums of money that few individuals can match. Finally, Stephens pointed out that the mere appearance of impropriety fostered by Corporate campaign contributions would have a chilling affect on voter participation.

Stephens' arguments fell on deaf ears. The Court, as so often before, sided with corporations against the interests of ordinary citizens. One protection for We the People would be to limit the power of the Court by limiting its terms and making it easier to overrule their decisions with a national initiative. Critics of the Citizens United decision have proposed a Constitutional amendment to overturn it. A constitutional amendment would require majority votes of both houses of Congress and passage by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The amount of time, energy, and treasure necessary for the effort is enormous. This massive effort, involving millions of citizens, is required to counter the opinions of five Republican Justices. Nothing about our republic is less democratic than this proposition.

An amendment should be passed outlawing corporate spending in political elections. Laws should be instituted imposing heavy penalties for corporate officers who authorize anonymous spending from the corporate coffers.

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