A “Virtual” Constitutional Convention

In 1996 eleven other former Rhodes Scholars and I were “delegates” to a virtual U.S. constitutional convention.[1]

The other delegates were far more accomplished than I: (1) Samuel Beer, a distinguished author and political science professor at Harvard University;[2] (2) John Brademas, former Member of Congress and President of New York University;[3] (3) Jack Justice, a Philadelphia lawyer;[4] (4) Philip Kaiser, a former U.S. diplomat;[5]  (5) Jonathan Kozol, author, educator and activist about children;[6] (6) Jason McManus, a journalist and executive with Time/Life;[7] (7) Larry Sabato, author and professor of government, University of Virginia, and Director of its Center for Politics;[8] (8) Frank Sieverts, a specialist in refugee and relief issues at the State Department for 25 years and later an executive in the Washington office of the International Committee of the Red Cross; [9] (9) Reginald Stanton, a New Jersey lawyer and former state court judge; [10] (10) Lester Thurow, author and professor of management and economics, MIT;[11] and (11) Edwin Yoder, journalist and professor of journalism and humanities, Washington and Lee University .[12]

We first were asked to state in writing what, if any, constitutional changes we would propose in a contemporary constitutional convention. Then we were asked to comment in writing on the others’ suggestions. (This was before the advent of electronic, interactive communications technology with which we are familiar today.)[13]

I made two suggested constitutional changes. One was a federal campaign finance amendment that would assign individual financial contributions to a federal election fund that, in turn, would provide financing to federal election candidates. Such an amendment would overturn the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment as protecting money as speech, an amendment needed even more now after the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The other suggested constitutional amendment was to increase the term of office of members of the House of Representatives from two to four years with their election the same time as the president. This should result, I said in 1996, in less divided and stalemated government.[14] We could have benefited from such an amendment in 2010.

In my rebuttal, I observed that nearly everyone objected to the idea of holding a real constitutional convention in the late 1990’s, that no one had proposed a radically new concept of a constitution and that everyone had offered ideas for incremental change.[15]

Our most important proposals, I thought, all were designed to facilitate the people’s voice being heard through the electoral process. Three others joined me in suggesting campaign finance amendments. No one suggested term limits for members of the House or Senate, and several wanted repeal of the XXII Amendment that imposed a two-term limit on the president. A number of proposals were made to make changes in the electoral college for the election of the president and vice president. Larry Sabato wanted to make voting in the presidential election mandatory. Two other delegates proposed increasing the Representatives’ term to four years as did I. Some noted the increasing anti-majoritarian nature of the U.S. Senate and suggested reallocating Senate seats from smaller to larger states to remedy that problem, and one “delegate” proposed making ex-presidents ex-officio members of the Senate.[16]

In my rebuttal I disagreed with Jonathan Kozol’s desire for children’s rights amendments. His comments, reminded us, however, I said, of the profound need to counter-balance the voting ranks of the retired people. I, therefore, offered for debate the idea of extending the voting franchise to children of all ages. There were obvious administrative problems that would have to be solved to make that possible.[17]

Interestingly in terms of the political debates of 2011, no one suggested there be a balanced budget amendment. Moreover, John Brademas reiterated his public opposition to such an amendment as “dangerous to national security and the nation’s economy.” This idea and others like it, he said, “attempt to decide current political controversies outside the regular give-and-take of the legislative process. The effect of such proposals is to trivialize the Constitution and diminish respect for its central, fundamental place in the American system of governing.”[18]

[1] A “Virtual” Constitutional Convention, American Oxonian, Fall 1996, at 232.

[2] Samuel Hutchison Beer, Harvard Scholar of British and American Politics, Dies at 97, ces/news/press-releases/beer-04102009.shtml.

[3] Wikipedia, John Brademas, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brademas.

[4] Register of Rhodes Scholars 1903-1005 at 183.

[5] Wikipedia, Philip Mayer Kaiser, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Mayer_Kaiser.

[6] Wikipedia, Jonathan Kozol, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Kozol; Jonathan Kozol, http://www.learntoquestion.com/seevak/groups/2002/sites/kozol/Seevak02/                                                                          ineedtogoHOMEPAGE/homepage.htm.

[7] Wikipedia, Jason McManus, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_McManus.

[8] University of Virginia, Larry J. Sabato, http://www.centerforpolitics.org/staff_sabato.html; Larry Sabato, http://www.larrysabato.com.

[9]  Stout,  Frank A. Sieverts, 70, Specialist In Refugee Issues at State Dept., N.Y. Times (April 7, 2004).

[10] Walker Research, Reginald Stanton, eprofile/R/Reginald__Stanton_400170555.html.

[13]  American Oxonian, Fall 1996, at 232.

[14]  Id. at 235-36.

[15]  Id. at 259-61.

[16]  Id.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id. at 244-45.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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