So it begins...every Friday between today and November 11th the undergraduate students in my Honors College class will meet as delegates to a new constitutional convention. Their task, simply put, is similar to that which was given to the delegates at the convention in 1787...to revise and strengthen the existing document that created the United States of America. Some 224 years have passed since the delegates began meeting in Philadelphia in the late spring of 1787. By the time they finished in September of that year the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were no more. In their place was a brand new document replete with new (and stronger) governmental institutions than had previously existed. The ratification debate over the next year would be fierce but in the end the constitution would be ratified by the requisite nine states on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire assented. Virginia and New York would follow later that summer and the Congress created by the Articles of Confederation agreed to cease existence on March 4, 1789.
Now, 224 years later, how has that constitution held up? Most would argue that it has held up quite well due to adaptation, amendment, and a common political culture committed to the constitution as the supreme law of the land. That is not to discount the terrible struggles of the 19th century from the nullification crisis in the 1830's to the most destructive war the United States has ever fought, our own Civil War. Yet, through it all, Americans have hung together, committed to making the system work for all Americans, though it is doubtless that improvements can and should be made. For if we cannot learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. Our various political factions alternately accuse each other of violating the constitution, be it by employing 'secret rendition', unauthorized wiretaps, or mandating every American to purchase health insurance or pay a fine/tax. Obstructionist tactics have risen to new heights as partisans threaten filibusters to prevent legislation from even being considered on the floor of the Senate. The number of threatened filibusters between 2007 and 2011 is greater than ALL the filibusters over the previous 200 years. As little as 20 years ago, senators would have to carry out, not just threaten, a filibuster to prevent unwanted legislation. House Republicans have adopted a new tactic this year to prevent the president from making recess appointments by refusing to allow Congress to go into recess during the annual August recess even though the House has NO role in the nomination and confirmation process. Senate Democrats did something similar during the final months of George W. Bush's 2nd term, though they were in control of the Senate at that time. It is unprecedented for the House to obstruct presidential action (and not at all clear if constitutional) for which it has no say in the process.
Beyond obstructionism, Americans have lost confidence in their political institutions. Congress' approval rate stands around 13%, the president at 39%, and the Court at near 50%. Corporations have been declared to be 'persons' with free speech rights, allowed to create 'super-pacs' and make unlimited contributions to them for the purpose of promoting the defeat or election of candidates to the federal Congress. They spent over $300 million in 2010 doing just that, 2/3 on behalf of Republicans. Democrats will respond likewise in 2012. Some $20 million was spent in a special election race in NY early in 2011 and $30 million on recall efforts of state senators in WI in July and August. Deficit spending has become a huge concern for Americans, as evidenced by the rise of the Tea-Party movement in 2009, though it is unclear how much of that is really anti-Obama politics at this point. Representatives spend nearly all their time cultivating contacts and raising funds for reelection. The reelection campaign for the presidency often begins 21 months before the election and nearly a billion dollars will be spent by all the parties involved. Compare that with the British Parliamentary elections, which run about six weeks and feature free air time for each party to make it's case to the people, followed by a term of up to five years for the victorious party to go about the task of governing rather than electioneering. Of course, there are drawbacks to parliamentary systems as well, such as little to no voice for the opposition.
All in all, the time has come for reform and I am giving my students a chance to accomplish it. It shall be interesting to see what they create, what rights are preserved, what institutional structures remain intact, and so on. I will write about the results here each Friday as time allows. Let the convention begin!