Change is Possible

No really….that’s actually not just something people say….we already have a way…

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” (emphasis added by me)

~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, 12 June 1816


Honestly, it’s still amazing to me every day that I wake up and the American citizenry still accepts that Congress’ performance is lackluster, to put it mildly.  Everyone is annoyed, everyone thinks it cannot go on like this, and still nothing seems to happen to change it.  It’s not like the Founding Fathers left us a way to change our government in a codified, legal format so it could work better….oh wait, THEY DID!  It’s called an AMENDMENT, and it modifies our Constitution so we can get at a problem at its core (especially helpful when the problem is an especially tangled web).  When they wrote the Constitution, the founding fathers recognized that times would change, issues would arise, and the fundamental law of the land would need to have the ability to change as well.  By 1791, the very men and the same citizenry who had written and ratified the Constitution not even 5 years earlier, had already enacted a whopping 10 amendments.  In fact, the Constitution has pretty regularly seen amendments throughout our country’s history, usually at least once every 20 years or so (with the longest notable gap being the 60 years between the 12 and 13 amendments, other than that, it’s remarkably consistent).  This tells us something hugely important: not only is our Constitution designed to be modified, it consistently needs to be (and has been) to address fundamental issues with our government as they arise.

Interestingly enough, the last current amendment to the Constitution, the 27th, was ratified in 1992 (although it had been proposed originally in 1789 with the original Bill of Rights).  It’s a great change; it prevents Congress from altering their own salaries until the next set of terms start.  Or even more basically, they can’t vote themselves a pay raise that takes effect during the current period they’re in office.  They have to go to the trouble of getting themselves re-elected before they can benefit from any pay increase they voted on themselves the preceding term.  Fast forward 20 years, and its 2013.  Our government and Congress have ground themselves to a stand still over and over again throughout the last few years.  They haven’t passed a budget in 4 years.  We have showdowns over fiscal cliffs, appropriations bills (that’s Congress-speak for the spending bills that keep the government running, especially in the absence of a budget), sequester cuts, and raising the debt ceiling every few months.  What a way to run a country.  Except its not, and we all know it.  There’s an answer to this seemingly never-ending government ineffectiveness and drama – amend the Constitution.

I’m not the first person to suggest it, I certainly won’t be the last.  But here’s the thing: this is the entire reason the founding fathers built amendments into the fabric of our government in the first place.  Is the process reasonably challenging?  Certainly, that’s also the point.  Amendments have to be hard to pass so that it can’t just be done overnight without thought.  The easiest way is for 2/3rds of both houses of Congress to propose it to the states to be ratified (by 3/4ths of the states).  But since we all know Congress isn’t exactly the most functional institution in the world, that might be a bit much to expect.  After all, if it was passed, it would force them to stop conducting “business as usual” in Washington.  The other method is much more fun.  A national convention called by 2/3rds of the states can propose an amendment, and then send it out to be ratified by 3/4ths of the states.  This is the method by which the original Constitution was written and ratified; it hasn’t been used for amendments as of yet.  But it can be.  Doing so would also be an intriguing exercise in states regaining some of the powers and authorities they’re supposed to have as checks and balances on the federal government’s power.  And so Dear Reader, we come to all of us.  Guess what?  You have a state legislature.  The elected officials there actually care a lot more about your opinion than the ones you send to Washington.  Why?  They’re more beholden to you and your vote, and they still live and serve in your state.  Demand they propose a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.  Demand they fix the problem that our federal government is unable to, because maybe if we cut open the back of the paper bag, Congress will finally find its way out.


Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, 12 June 1816

Electronic Text Courtesy of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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