It's Time to Reshape the Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country

The Constitution of the United States is fundamentally sound, and its design for government and human rights -- from the separation of powers to the Bill of Rights -- is brilliant. Yet in the 220 years since it was written, circumstances have changed dramatically, and serious flaws have emerged in recent times. For example, the transformation in warfare and the enhancement of the U.S. position in the world have tilted the balance of war-making powers too heavily in the president's direction. For another, the structure of the U.S. Senate massively discriminates against the heavily populated states, so much so that a tiny minority of Americans can stymie progress for the vast majority. The Founders can hardly be blamed; no one could see hundreds of years into the future. The first people who recognized this reality were the Founders themselves. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and others urged Americans to reform their constitutional handiwork regularly. Jefferson wanted a new Constitutional Convention every 19 years -- the length of a generation in his time. But we've never had another Convention, and we've added only 17 Amendments to the text of the Constitution (some of them quite minor) since the Framers put down their quill pens. It's time to take up the fight for a fairer America. Certainly, careful study is required over a generation because the Constitution should never be changed lightly. But the debate about change is long overdue. Among the 23 proposals for major reform in my new book, A More Perfect Constitution, are these seven suggested improvements:

1. Both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts have illustrated a modern imbalance in the constitutional power to wage war. Once Congress consented to these wars, presidents were able to continue them for many years long after popular support had drastically declined. Limit the president's war-making authority by creating a provision that requires Congress to vote affirmatively every six months to continue American military involvement. Debate in both houses would be limited so that the vote could not be delayed. If either house of Congress voted to end a war, the president would have one year to withdraw all combat troops.

2. If the 26 least populated states voted as a bloc, they would control the U.S. Senate with a total of just under 17 percent of the country's population. This small-state strangle-hold is not merely a bump in the road; it is a massive roadblock to fairness that can, and often does, stop all progressive traffic. We should give each of the 10 most populated states two additional Senate seats and give each of the next 15 most populated states one additional seat. Sparsely populated states will still be disproportionately represented, but the ridiculous tilt to them in today's system can be a thing of the past.

3. More than 14 million American citizens are automatically and irrevocably barred from holding the office of president simply because they were not born in the United States -- either they are immigrants or their American mothers gave birth to them while outside U.S. territory. This exclusion creates a noxious form of second-class citizenship. The requirement that the president must be a "natural born citizen" should be replaced with a condition that a candidate must be a U.S. citizen for at least 20 years before election to the presidency.

4. Excessive authority has accrued to the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court -- so much so that had the founders realized the courts' eventual powers, they would have limited judicial authority. The insularity of lifetime tenure, combined with the appointments of relatively young attorneys who give long service on the bench, produces senior judges representing the views of past generations better than views of the current day. A nonrenewable term limit of 15 years should apply to all federal judges, from the district courts all the way up to the Supreme Court.

5. If a convention of clowns designed an amusing, crazy-quilt method of nominating presidential candidates, the resulting system would probably look much as ours does today. The incoherent organization of primaries and caucuses dictates that candidates start campaigning at least a full year in advance of the first nomination contest in order to become known nationwide and to raise the funds needed to compete. Congress should be constitutionally required to designate four regions of contiguous states; the regions would hold their nominating events in successive months, beginning in April and ending in July. A U.S. Election Lottery, to be held on January 1 of the presidential election year, would determine the order of regional events. The new system would add an element of drama to the beginning of a presidential year while also shortening the campaign: no one would know in which region the contest would begin until New Year's Day.

6. The benefits of living in a great democracy are not a God-given right. In exchange for the privileges of American citizenship, every individual owes a debt of public service to his fellow citizens. The Constitution should mandate that all able bodied Americans devote two years of their lives to serving their nation -- and whether the service is civilian or military, domestic or foreign, would be up to each individual. The civilian, military, and nonprofit options would have to accommodate the varied talents of the population, as well as our diverse dictates of conscience.

7. Give the president the line-item appropriations veto. If we want an effective presidency, then we must structure it to be effective even in difficult situations, such as when different parties control the White House and the Congress. Constituency based pork is so highly prized by legislators that in rare instances, they might be willing to vote in support of the executive branch on a bill that truly serves the national interest. Otherwise unneeded pork would be slaughtered, and over time the national debt would be reduced.

Larry J. Sabato is the founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. His new book is "A MORE PERFECT CONSTITUTION:23 Dynamic Proposals to Reshape the Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country."

To learn more about his new book and to submit suggestions for your own proposal to amend The Constitution, please go to: