Bruce Maiman

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  • The Conversation: Is it time to retool the Constitution?
  • • TERM LIMITS: Varied suggestions included limits to members of Congress (two six-year terms in the Senate; four four-year terms in the House).

    Debate point: Should Supreme Court justices be limited to a single nine-year term? Or one 18-year term? Should presidents be allowed to serve more than two terms? (Repeal of the 22nd Amendment.)

    • CAMPAIGN FINANCE: In spirit, preventing individuals, organizations or special interest groups from "buying" a candidate.

    "Campaign contributions from any entity to any candidate for any office in the United States government shall not exceed those limits set for citizens."

    • WAR POWERS: Essentially, no more undeclared wars.

    "No offensive military action shall be undertaken without a formal declaration of war from the Congress; any military action undertaken without Congressional declaration shall be grounds for impeachment."

    POLL RESULTS

    Here are the results of our unscientific online poll that logged in more than 650 votes as of Friday.

    Presidential Popular Vote Amendment: 31 percent

    Citizens United Amendment: 24 percent

    Citizenship Rights Amendment: 19 percent

    Hogs at the Trough Amendment: 13 percent

    Campaign Reform Amendment: 7 percent

    Equal Rights Amendment: 5 percent

Reader poll: Many chime in on Constitution revamp

Published: Sunday, May. 6, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E

In the April 22 Forum section, we asked if it was time to retool the Constitution and offered readers an unscientific poll to vote on several possible amendments for revision.

The idea of considering revisions to the U.S. Constitution drew a large, vigorous response – from adamant opposition to any change, to nuanced refining of the language, to entirely new amendments.

Of the proposed amendments, you seemed most favorable to eliminating the Electoral College – selecting a president by popular vote instead – and to essentially repealing the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling declaring, "corporations are people."

Of more than 130 emails I received, the Citizens United and campaign reform amendment were top vote-getters.

Some readers felt term limits should be imposed on Congress and even the judiciary – nine-year terms perhaps, with the senior justice being replaced each year.

Ron Dean, a retired firefighter in Lincoln, proposed that presidents serve a single six-year term. "This would keep the president from spending half of his/her first term trying to get re-elected," he wrote in an email.

Others felt revisions wouldn't be necessary if lawmakers simply followed the Constitution we already have. "No more undeclared wars," wrote Elliot James in an online comment.

Many were less concerned about revising amendments and more concerned about the lawmakers entrusted to revise them.

"I don't feel confident it could be done without the special interest groups crawling out of the woodwork," Ann Moore of El Dorado Hills wrote in an email.

"It would be comical," emailed Rick Lavelle of Sacramento, "to observe the various partisans storming out of their respective enclaves, expressing outrage over whatever they disagreed with."

To me, were we to go forward with this exercise, the important question wouldn't be whom we task with this responsibility, but rather, will we citizens be vigilant enough to safeguard the process?

Perhaps it starts with legal scholars who, with citizen input, craft and submit proposals for review by lawmakers. Yes, we despise them much and trust them little, but that's corrected by the kind of scrutiny and pressure only citizens can impose upon those who represent us. This is our duty as Americans; we are the government.

So much of what we abhor in our lawmakers is the product of our own negligence. We citizens are too often absentee landlords in the political process. Change that, and representation improves; don't change it, and you get what we've got right now. So yes, lawmakers can do this, provided we're watching them like hawks.

Article V of the Constitution spells out the process of enacting an amendment. Most of us have a vague idea how that's done: Proposed by two-thirds in each congressional chamber, ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Congress likely would resist any revisions. Anything that challenges existing institutions is a threat to them. However, if two-thirds of state legislatures call for an amendment convention, they can circumvent Congress, and Congress then has no choice but to call for an convention whether it wants one or not. Once that happens, any other amendment can be proposed. Any existing amendment can be revised. If, at the behest of their constituents, enough statehouses conjoin behind one particular amendment proposal, the potential for a new Constitutional Convention suddenly rears its head.

Opposition to revising the Constitution is understandable, but for me, as a general rule, the one great constant in civilization is change. Things constantly change.

The Framers not only knew this, they lived it. They changed their lives dramatically to escape the constrictions of European society. Reconsideration, revision and compromise were very much the fabric of the framing period in which our government was shaped and reshaped. People forget that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was convened to revise the Articles of Confederation crafted a decade earlier. Instead, the Articles were entirely replaced.

Few know that originally, the Constitution had no Bill of Rights. Many delegates felt them unnecessary – a "parchment barrier," James Madison believed. Instead, the delegates battled over proportional representation, the lengths of elected service, the division of powers, impeachable offenses and slavery.

But Thomas Jefferson believed strongly that individual rights be enumerated. As a diplomat to France from 1783 to 1789, he witnessed firsthand how, without such a charter, French citizens had their liberties wrenched from beneath them during a period that became the prelude to the French Revolution. What Jefferson saw in France, he feared could happen in America.

His letters from afar eventually convinced his protégé Madison that such an enumeration was critical. It was Madison and fellow Virginia delegate George Mason who pressed for the addition of explicit individual rights to balance federal powers. Indeed, Mason initially didn't sign the Constitution largely because it lacked such a proclamation. His efforts eventually succeeded in persuading the Federalists to add those first 10 amendments, which took another four years to ratify.

So change was afoot from the beginning. Understand: I'm not calling for wholesale changes. I'm saying we should discuss the possibility. Those folding their arms in opposition, I can guarantee they'll find something in our recent past over which they became livid, something constitutionally protected. We shouldn't ignore any loopholes derived from vagaries in the document's language, or two centuries of immutable seismic societal changes.

So above all, a conversation should be in order in whatever forums available: Town halls, media outlets, the classroom, even the coffee shop. In their day, coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th centuries were a nexus for scholars, thinkers and virtuosi to congregate, learn from and debate with each other. Referred to as "penny universities," they were far less structured than, say, Oxford, but offered enlightenment nonetheless. With today's digital reach, there's no reason why we can't extend this dialogue exponentially.

Would it be a lengthy, noisy process? Unquestionably. The exchange of ideas is rarely devoid of raucous debate. Any possible revisions, though, should be guided by two objectives:

• Clarification wherever needed.

• Whatever we decide, it should be done with the intent of advantaging the most of us while disadvantaging the least of us.

And if no changes occur, that's OK, too. But we'll never know unless we at least agree to begin a dialogue. Remember: It's not about the change; it's about the process. We should always be engaged in the process. If nothing else, at least we become more familiar with a document that surprisingly few have read, and that can't be a bad thing.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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