To quote Thomas Jefferson's language in the Declaration of Independence, we do not alter our government, or amend our Constitution, for "light or transient causes." While there have been over 11,000 suggested amendments to the Constitution since it was written in 1787, only 33 have made their way through the Congress with Article V's mandated two-thirds vote. Of these, 27 have survived the ratification process in three-fourths of the states -- that's 27 amendments over the course of 229 years.
The onerous task of amending the Constitution should not be exercised habitually. From time to time, however, we the people exhibit great wisdom in using the amendment process to clarify meaning and procedure. The current partisan battle to replace the late Justice Scalia, for example, makes it apparent that a fine point needs to be put on presidential appointment power. In addition, two other questions perpetually provoke deep division and heated debate -- particularly in an election season. It is time to remove these issues from the table by ratifying three constitutional amendments:
- Require the president to nominate a replacement for all federal judiciary vacancies within 30 days of the occupant's death, retirement, or removal; oblige the full Senate to vote on all nominees within 30 days of nomination; and -- while we're sharpening the language -- amend the "during good behavior" clause (Article III, Section 1) to appointments that expire at end of term following a judge's 80th birthday. With this three-point amendment in place, it would no longer matter which party occupies the White House or controls the Senate when a vacancy occurs. Instead, the constitutional machinery would be set in motion with each vacancy and no political motivation could stop it.
Sometimes our political leaders conduct themselves like children arguing about whose turn it is to be "it" in a game of tag. Like quarreling youngsters, politicians are best corralled by highly prescriptive constitutional requirements that force them to engage the issue at hand, instead of polluting our system with cage-match politics. Defining precisely what our Constitution means by the Appointments Clause, by "natural-born citizen," and by equal protection under law will set in place permanent processes that are blind to political party, thereby buttressing our political edifice and empowering our representatives to act in unity with the better angels of their nature.
Rodney Wilson teaches American political systems at a community college in Missouri.