Sabato's Crystal Ball

Wrapping Up the National Constitutional Convention

Non-partisan Discussion Explores Potential Reforms

UVA Center for Politics October 18th, 2007

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On Friday, October 19, 2007 the Center for Politics hosted the National Constitutional Convention at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C. With nearly 500 registered participants, the day-long event featured discussion and analysis of constitutional reform from some of the top government officials, academics, politicians, legal scholars and members of the media. For our readers who were not in attendance, the Crystal Ball is happy to provide a summary of the day’s events, with special thanks to University of Virginia students Joe Baber, S.W. Dawson and Ben Smoot for their contributions to this report. We’ll be back on the campaign beat next week with a new feature article by Rhodes Cook.

Conference Opening Remarks

The opening speaker for the National Constitutional Convention was former US representative and former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. She began her presentation with a brief history of the vice presidential debate which piqued with a vignette of her debating then vice president Bush during the 1984 election.

Once finished warming up the crowd, Ferraro wasted no time getting down to brass tacks. She began by stating that our “system is broken,” noting the nation’s health care issues and the 2000 election process. Not one to dwell on the problematic, she quickly moved on to solutions, exemplified by a quote she cited from former New York governor Al Smith, “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”

This quote embodied the spirit of her speech and personal outlook that America should be improved by incremental steps toward greater democracy. She did say, however, that while she is not currently in favor of a second Constitutional Convention, it is important to get people thinking about what can be done to improve the country. In short, her belief was that most of the American populous believes that the government works well, noting that our government is perceived as “the gold standard of democracy in the world.”

Ferraro then spoke of the history of the 1st Constitutional Convention, presenting those in the audience who were not U.Va. grads (zing!) with a bit of the history surrounding the subject at hand. She made a fierce point of the need to compromise between the founding fathers, and the conflict that ensued. Since Ferraro is a lawyer, it was not surprising that she brought up the fact that many others overlook: the Constitutional Convention was against the rules of the Articles of Confederation, which was the governing document of the land at that point. In essence, it was out of dire necessity that the Constitutional Convention convened, and presently such a desperate need does not exist, Ferraro argued. She feared that a second Constitutional Convention would entail an endless amount of proposed amendments based on personal gain, specific agendas and selfish needs, although the extraordinary majorities needed to pass any constitutional reforms are in place to guard against these circumstances.

Getting back to the subject at hand, she then presented her thoughts on “A More Perfect Constitution,” yet not before complementing the awareness it will undoubtedly create. Like any good politician, she first started out with the ideas she agreed with. First on that list was the proposition to extend House terms from 2-3 years. She reiterated the fact that it was one of Madison’s original ideas, and that a need exists for such an extension in this day and age.

Under the heading of changes in the House was the idea of enlarging it to one thousand members, for better communication between the official and their electorate. Given Ferraro’s time as Representative, it was not surprising that she was against this change. She cited a potential for even further decline in civility, as well as a more “muddled” legislative process in arguing why the House is fine where it is. She also quibbled with the idea of a balanced budget requirement in the Constitution, citing presidents like Clinton who were capable of achieving balance on their own.

In her conclusion, Ferraro said that “amending the Constitution shouldn’t be done quickly, or go to the loudest voices in the room. It should be done very carefully”. Although her thoughts on the proposals were nuanced and mixed, she thought the book, “A More Perfect Constitution,” was excellent food for thought, which might encourage others to think about what they can do to facilitate change.

Panel I: Presidential and Congressional Election Reform

The first panel discussion followed Geraldine Ferraro’s address, and continued right where she left off. Moderating the discussion was Bob Schieffer from CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He introduced the first round of distinguished panelists by one by one, briefly pausing on each person in order to inform the crowd of their accolades. The group included: Fred Barnes from the Weekly Standard, Congressman Rob Bishop from Utah, Donna Brazile from the Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton from the District of Colombia, Jamie Raskin from American University Law School and former Governor Lowell Weicker from Connecticut.

Once finished introducing the speakers, Bob Schieffer wasted no time getting to the point of the panel discussion, which was the electoral process. Fred Barnes began, referencing “A More Perfect Constitution,” and saying that it had “demystified the convention process.” Jamie Raskin was next to weigh in and, as a constitutional lawyer by profession, was able to offer some needed insight into what our current system has to offer. He pointed out that “thirteen of the amendments deal with who gets rights,” and added that “everyone needs representation.” Raskin then went on to describe our current Electoral College as a “relic” and ultimately advocated for a complete abolition of the Electoral College system, with elections being decided instead purely by popular vote. A new popular vote system would give candidates from other parties a chance at election, which he believed was a key to introducing change into our current political system.

Once Donna Brazile took the floor, she immediately turned the attention to the primary process in response to Schieffer who asked “are primaries based on who can buy the most coverage?” She answered “yes,” saying that it was her experience in the 2000 election, as campaign manager for Gore/Lieberman, that after securing 16 key states, 34 states had almost no say in the matter. She also emphasized the need for fair guidelines for the nominating system, to give the other states a voice.

Congressman Bishop then stepped up to the plate when Schieffer asked about his idea of reform. In response, Bishop rhetorically asked “is our reform an effort to control things? Do we change things to control people?” He said that he liked the idea of a singular national primary, not the current system of multiple primaries over the span of months.

Schieffer then asked Lowell Weicker about his take on the two-party system. Weicker, who was elected Governor of Connecticut as an independent, responded in the same tone of Jamie Raskin, saying that the only way to introduce change instead of more of the same was to open up the ballot for independent nominees. “Competition will reform politics,” Wiecker said.

Finally, Schieffer asked Rep. Norton why Washington, D.C. lacked representation. Norton related her city’s plight to the Constitution. In essence, the population of D.C. was not a problem when the Constitution was drafted, and has since become a problem over the course of more than two hundred years, just as many Constitutional problems that now exist are products of the changing times.

Panel II: Checking the Powers of Government

A More Perfect Constitution issues a call for the President of the United States to assume the same power that now belongs to forty-three out of fifty state Governors: cut specific appropriation line-items without vetoing the entire bill. This could reduce the tax dollars spent on individual Representatives’ “pet projects.” Panelist Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton, addressed the great “grief” the Clinton administration went through during a twenty-six month span when the line-item veto was allowed. “Calling members of Congress and telling them that their pet projects weren’t going through was tough to do,” Lockhart said. Clinton used the line-item veto seventy-eight times to eliminate $483.6 million in spending, but the Supreme Court ruled the congressionally granted line-item veto to be unconstitutional in 1998, meaning that any return to the line-item veto can only be achieved through a change to the Constitution.

The panel also tackled the subject of the United States’ ever-aging justices on the Supreme Court and whether justices should be appointed for life as is the current practice. Catherine Crier, formerly of CNN and Court TV, agreed with the argument in “A More Perfect Constitution” that justices are indeed getting too old. She also argued that the recent appointments of younger justices like Roberts and Alito run the risk of having justices serve on the bench for much longer than the framers had intended. U.Va. professor Paul Freedman asserted that wisdom, not potential length of service, was the criterion the founders’ intended for appointment to the Supreme Court.

Moderator Bob Schieffer then brought up the idea of mandatory service for all citizens of the United States, a solution proposed in A More Perfect Constitution for the problem Scheiffer cited of the public’s seemingly apathetic view of today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Schieffer posed the question, “Should democracies even be involved in war if everyone is not involved?” Freedman called mandatory service an “excellent idea,” but former Congressman Fred Grandy and others on the panel instead asserted that voluntary service should remain voluntary, reflecting the unsettled nature of the question among the American people as well.

A More Perfect Constitution argues for a more co-equal role for the Congress and presidency when it comes to war powers. Famed lawyer Sarah Weddington, who represented Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade, argued that Congress definitely should hold the lion’s share of the powers to wage war. Conservative Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, could not have disagreed more. “The framers gave the president the power to wage war for a reason,” he said, “The nature of the legislature cannot handle the exactness of handling a war.” Rep. Grandy asserted that Congress has plenty of power in its ability to fund war, but acknowledged there is a problem. Referencing the Congress’ unwillingness to cut off funding for the U.S.’s current war in Iraq, Grandy claimed: “The powers are there to be exercised, but Congress has become too political.”

Citing concerns over members of congress representing too many people and thus being out of touch with values of their constituents, A More Perfect Constitution calls for an expansion of the House of Representatives to 1,000 members. Rep. Grandy called this a “license to gerrymander.” Other panelists agreed with thoughts expressed earlier by Ferraro. “A bigger House would only produce more non-competitive elections,” Lowry said. While it is widely believed that creating more House districts would indeed bring a member of Congress closer to his or her constituents’ beliefs, some fear it could also lead to even more “safe” districts where incumbents are almost guaranteed reelection.

Keynote Address

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito opened his keynote address by talking about “open-mindedness” in terms of the importance of free dialogues, civic education and even having a Supreme Court Justice speak at a forum that explored reforming the Constitution in the first place! As someone who should have no direct role in the process of making or altering the Constitution, Alito toyed with the idea of asking the audience, “Why am I here?” but acknowledged the value of exploring and discussing our nation’s founding document.

Despite his personal fondness and professional reverence for our current version, Justice Alito did agree with the idea that the public should push for Constitutional revision when they see a need. He argued that it was important for Americans to be familiar with the Constitution, citing the importance of people “understanding how things work in order to make them better.” He also said that the original founders of the Constitution would be perfectly happy with the idea of changing the Constitution, although he believes it would be rather difficult to do so.

If there was one item in A More Perfect Constitution that most raised Justice Alito’s ire, it was the idea of televised Supreme Court arguments. Going through a long list of “courtroom TV dramas” that currently are broadcast throughout America, the justice lightly commented that he wouldn’t want to compete. He argued that transcripts and even audio tapes of the court’s proceedings are made available to the public; the only things missing, he said, were the faces of the justices with their lips moving.

Panel III: Should there be Another Constitutional Convention?

The last of the three panels asked “Should there be another Constitutional Convention?” The panel was moderated by Catherine Crier, former host of news shows on Court TV and CNN, and consisted of Lance Cargill, speaker of the Oklahoma state house, Garret Epps, Eric Lane, and Sanford Levinson, all three constitutional scholars, Michael Steele, former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, and Nadine Strossen president of the ACLU.

Crier began the discussion by asking the panelists to discuss the importance of lawyers in addressing the appropriateness of a Constitutional Convention. While the panel agreed entirely on the importance of a legal presence, many of the panelists seemed to particularly address the importance of calling upon members of society from every facet of life to revise the first constitution. Nadine Strossen particularly stressed this idea, emphasizing a well rounded sample from the larger population of American citizens.

The panel then addressed the degree of success in which a Convention today would be able to leave all special interests behind in creating a new constitution and focusing solely on the structural elements of that Constitution. Seemingly, representatives to the convention would be unable to refrain from considering their own special interests in revising the constitution. All of the panelists were very weary of this fact and feared the consequences of a convention in regard to this.

The panel then changed its course slightly and began to discuss the implications of how today’s issues would shape and form a newly revised constitution. Sanford Levinson said that regardless of party affiliation, the federal government is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of Americans. From a structural point of view, Levinson believes this is a perfect time for a constitutional convention assuming it is performed correctly.

Eric Lane differed on the timing of a Constitutional Convention by saying that only during extreme periods of crisis to the welfare of the state will a Constitutional Convention be considered. Lane pointed out that the special interests of the American people and its government will naturally lead and dominate the framework of the American government, assuming that government is still operating within its capacity for the welfare of the American people.

Garett Epps highlighted the compromises made in the Constitution which involve the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Epps was strongly in favor of the Article 5 amendment process and its potential to amend the federal government’s framework without disrupting the Constitution completely.

When asked how he would form a Constitutional Convention, Levinson responded that he would select at random 500-700 citizens, with pay, to debate out the terms of the new constitution over a two year period. Epps endorsed the idea of an actual “mock convention” that would force the American people to look at and understand our constitution completely in an effort to get citizens thinking about the ability and opportunity for change. Michael Steele added onto that by saying that the American public must be reeducated on civic issues.

Steele also opined that the timing for a constitutional convention today is off. “We are in the middle of fleeting issues which prevent us from addressing the idea of a constitutional convention…It is a very slippery slope.

As the panelists wrapped up their discussion, they all agreed through some compromise that the most intelligent means of altering our Constitution today would come in the form of amendment packages through the Article 5 provision.

The Youth Leadership Initiative’s Constitutional Mock Election Results

More than 40,000 students from schools across the nation learned about the U.S. Constitution and Constitutional change in the weeks leading up to the National Constitutional Convention by voting on proposed changes to one of America’s founding documents.

Students from across the country cast nearly 500,000 votes over the course of two weeks in the nation’s largest, student-only, online mock election in the nation, using ballots with suggested amendments to the Constitution. This fall, very few states held federal elections, which gave Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI) the chance to do something it had never done before–host a mock election based solely on the Constitution.

The results of this exercise were announced at the National Constitutional Convention, and some of the results were quite surprising. Of course, this is not intended in any way to be a scientific poll or research survey, but rather an education experience to engage students in the voting process and educate them about the Constitution.

Figure 1. Results of the Youth Leadership Initiative’s Constitutional Mock Election

Student Mock Election Question Percentage Voting “Yea” Percentage Voting “Nay” Passed or Defeated by Students?
The U.S. Constitution should limit the President’s ability to commit to military action by first requiring congressional consent. 25.8 74.2 Defeated
The President should be able to remove the parts of a bill that he does not support without vetoing the entire piece of legislation. 60.5 39.5 Passed
Any U.S. citizen who is 35 years of age or older and has lived in the country for twelve years or more should be allowed to run for the Office of President, even if they were born outside the United States. 54.8 45.2 Passed
States with medium and large populations should be given extra representation in the U.S. Senate. 61.4 38.6 Passed
U.S. Congressional districts should be determined by a nonpartisan committee of U.S. citizens appointed by the Supreme Court of each state, instead of by legislators in the Unites States Congress. 46.5 53.5 Defeated
A term in the U.S. House of Representatives should last for three years instead of two years. 56.0 44.0 Passed
U.S. Supreme Court Justices should serve for a set number of years instead of for life terms. 36.6 63.4 Defeated
Federal judges should be required to retire at 75 years of age. 44.6 55.4 Defeated
A schedule of dates for state primaries should be determined by a regional lottery instead of by each individual state, as is the current practice. 56.8 43.2 Passed
The Electoral College should be eliminated and the President of the United States should be elected by popular vote only. 48.5 51.5 Defeated
Every candidate running for U.S. President should receive an equal amount of federal tax dollars to use on their campaign and should not be allowed to use their own money. 42.7 57.3 Defeated
U.S. citizens should be registered automatically to vote upon turning 18 years of age. 25.0 75.0 Defeated
After graduating from high school or college, U.S. citizens should be legally required to serve their country for a minimum of two years by teaching in an area of need, serving in the military, or participating in a civic service program. 74.9 25.1 Passed

Conference Closing Remarks

Bob Dole has had a storied political career, serving as Senator for 35 years and only resigning to run for president in 1996. In his good-natured and humorous style, the Senator recounted his experiences with Constitutional change and those within the various institutions of American government. Dole witnessed four amendment pass through Congress during his tenure in office and influence by that experience, he stressed the importance of the Constitution as a guiding light. Dole emphasized the education of the American citizenry in attempting a Constitutional Convention, but warned that the relative stability of the government may have allowed citizens to slip into comfortable apathy. Dole said, “Since the convention, Americans have been constantly engaged in a peaceful revolution where the constitution has been the base for a seemingly static republic.”

Dole sprinkled his speech with anecdotes and revealing glimpse at his decades of public service. He noted how he had reached across the aisle while Majority Leader in the Senate and lamented that this level of bipartisanship has since eroded. Dole also drew from his experiences as a young veteran, injured in World War II and able to afford surgery only through the generosity of his community. This generosity nudged Dole down the path of public service, eventually leading him to the campaign trail, first for the Senate and eventually for the presidency.

To this day, the former Senator still carries a copy of the 10th Amendment in his pocket to remind him of the deliberative process our American democracy requires and demands for its success and perpetuation. Dole cites the 10th Amendment as an example of how important it is to break up and divide the government, something he believes ensures the government’s efficiency and security under a document that is more than 200 years old.