Recently, a White House commission heard testimony about a controversial proposal to remove the U.S. Supreme Court from its power to decide on the constitutionality and validity of American laws. Several witnesses stated that the court is too powerful and undemocratic.
A few weeks later, a legal scholar suggested that the two-year term of the House of Representatives was too short. he wrote ,in an atmosphere of constant campaigning.
Around the country, there are conversations underway about how the U.S. Senate could be restructured so that it doesn’t allot the same number of senators — two — to a state like Wyoming, which has fewer than 600,000 people, as it does to California, which has nearly 40 million people. Millions of Americans are grossly underrepresented by the current system.
There is talk of abolishing the electoral college and banning corporate money from politics. It has been suggested that Los Angeles County could be the eighth-largest US state. The possibility of depoliticizing redistricting, and allowing non-citizens the right to vote.
While many of these proposals have been supported for years by frustrated academics or head-in the-clouds idealists alike, there is a renewed sense of urgency to make structural changes in government.
Is this any surprise? The country is stuck in crisis and unable to move forward. The Presidents are unable to fulfill their plans. Congress cannot agree on legislation. The Supreme Court is highly politicized. We are still reeling from the four years of President Trump’s violations of democracy and its rules. Bipartisanship is dead.
Problems as serious as the climate crisis, economic inequality and racial injustice, and problems as simple and uncontroversial as rebuilding crumbling infrastructure and covering our national debts, seem insuperable in the face of partisanship and enmity.
It’s not surprising that Americans want to revitalize or reinvent democracy.
I’m here to tell you that there is change. Many of these proposals would actually improve our lot. The electoral college is an outdated system — the president should be awarded to the candidate with the highest number of votes. The structure of the Senate is a glaring violation of the principle of one-person, one-vote; the result of a deal from 1787 that badly needs reassessment. But ironically, in a time where people are open to big changes, it may seem that big changes may be harder than ever.
Truly fundamental reforms, such as eliminating the electoral college, remaking Senate or undoing Citizens United, would require amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Constitution.
Well, great, you might think — that’s why we have an amendment process, to keep the 234-year-old Constitution up to date with the modern world. Let’s get started.
But don’t get overexcited. In the 50 years since 1971, only one constitutional amendment has been approved, a relatively insignificant one about when congressional pay changes can go into effect. The amendment before that — extending the vote to 18-year-olds — could never succeed in today’s partisan environment because it would be likely to benefit one party over the other.
More than 11,000 amendments have been proposed since 1789, but only 27 have been enacted. Why are there so few? They are extremely difficult to pass. Too hard. A constitutional amendment must be voted on by two-thirds of the members of Congress in order to succeed. After that it must be ratified by three-quarters of the states (currently, 38 of them). This is a double supermajority. Good luck in this political climate. One critic recently went so far as to question whether the U.S. would ever pass a constitutional amendment again, quoting Aziz Rana, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University, saying: “We have an amendment process that’s the hardest in the world to enact.”
And if you want to change that amendment process? This requires an amendment.
Even legislative change that could be accomplished by Congress alone — for instance, rewriting the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 — is virtually impossible in the polarized mess of present-day Washington.
That’s why so many Democrats are focused on eliminating the filibuster, which makes it impossible to pass most legislation without a 60-vote supermajority in the 100-member Senate. Because the filibuster is a Senate rule, it could be abolished relatively easily through procedural maneuvering.
But, not all Democrats are in agreement to abolish the filibuster. It could prove difficult to find a majority.
Eliminating the filibuster is the kind of change that seems like a great idea when — as is now the case for Democrats — your party is in power but is not strong enough to surmount the 60-vote threshold. However, if you remove it, you should be ready for the consequences if your party loses its majority (which could easily occur to Democrats in the Senate next Year). It is possible to regret making the changes.
Many people grew up with American exceptionalism and post-1942 braggadocio. It was not uncommon to hear the U.S. as the greatest country in the globe, and to teach children that our Constitution was the best and most democratic. This self-image has been severely damaged in recent years.
A society must be capable of changing in order to stay healthy, responsive to its citizens, and truly democratic. It is not easy for the United States to do this.
Nevertheless, what choice do we have other than to keep trying, to vote our consciences, to protest peacefully and to speak out in favor of substantive democratic reform? The alternative is to continue doing the same.