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Reforming American Government

How complicated is it to change the system of government?

Story Series
Simply Civics

There is growing sentiment among the American people and scholars of our democratic system that the governmental structure created by the Constitution is in crisis if not irrevocably broken. Partisan bickering leading to endless two-party deadlock, the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College, growing restrictions on voting, especially among minority groups, gerrymandered representative districts that block out real competition, and term limits for members of Congress along with lifetime appointments of federal judges are just some of the examples of a governing system in dire need of reform. Public opinion polls consistently point to serious dissatisfaction among citizens with our leaders and institutions and growing disapproval of how our government has failed to respond to the needs of the people.

Reforming the American governing system is not an easy task as amendments to the Constitution require a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress followed by three-fourths of the state legislatures approving the amendment. This is a steep legislative hill to climb, which often ensures that reforms of the Constitution are doomed to failure. Our country has only changed the Constitution 27 times, which includes the first 10 amendments passed after the Constitution was ratified plus 17 other amendments of which two offset each other (Prohibition) and one, the 27th (legislative salaries), passed after languishing for over 200 years without any action taken. That leaves 14 amendments that are substantive changes to the way we structure and run our government. Of those 14 remaining amendments, most do not deal with the need for reform on the constitutional issues that currently are creating serious challenges relating to making governing fairer, efficient and timely, ensuring that the vote of the people for the President and Vice President will be direct and truly democratic, and seeing that the individuals who wield power face electoral limits or are not guaranteed lifetime service.

Those that have presented constitutional reform proposals such as noted constitutional scholar Max Stearns often suggest that what is needed is a dynamic multi-party system of politics in which additional parties provide a real check on the Democrats and Republicans and participate in a legislative process based on coalition building. Also, reform would entail an end to the Electoral College and allows for direct election of the President and Vice-President thereby avoiding the winner being chosen by a majority of state electoral votes (a combination of two senators and the number of representatives based on population). Perhaps most importantly, voting reform would entail easier forms of registration and ballot access and an end to gerrymandering where partisan state legislatures draw the representative lines in ways that limit the ability of one party to compete fairly in elections. Finally, Americans are concerned with the concentration of public policy power in the hands of members of Congress who hold on to power for generations without limits as well as federal judges who enjoy lifetime appointments that make removal from office under the impeachment process nearly impossible. At present the only limits on power occurs with the 22nd Amendment, which states that presidents can only serve two consecutive four-year terms, and the 25th Amendment, which allows a President to be removed from office if the Vice-President and cabinet members determine that he is in some way is unable to perform the duties of the office.

Because of the difficulty in achieving constitutional reform, some political leaders who are states’ rights advocates have suggested that what is necessary is the calling of a constitutional convention, which is an alternative to the amendment process, as a way of bringing forward changes to our system. The problem with a constitutional convention, according to its critics, is that the changes proposed by a yet unspecified delegate pool would likely weaken the federal government in a wide range of legislative, regulatory and economic areas and perhaps even weaken existing personal rights. The systemic problems outlined above that are the source of our current crisis would likely not be addressed in a constitutional convention because states’ rights advocates are largely interested in dismantling federal power and placing policy control in the hands of 50 states, so our nation would in effect become 50 individual entities with laws and rules that are distinct and separate.

Reforming our constitutional system is a key step in preserving our democracy. If we are to remain a nation that is united and committed to our motto — E Pluribus Unum — From Many One, then it is essential to form a functioning, fair and popular government that is wedded to democratic principles such as open elections, the rule of law, compromise and consensus, and regular transfers of power. Americans desperately want change and in too many instances are so upset with the current status quo that they begin to think that some form of authoritarianism is the answer to our constitutional problems. To avoid a shift toward authoritarianism, what is necessary is a dynamic democracy that expands the playing field of participants, is committed to resolving policy conflicts in an efficient manner and ensures that power does not remain in the hands of a select few. This dynamic democracy cannot wait any longer for we as a nation are running out of time.