The New York Times has published an interesting book review by Robert Dahl, one of the world’s preeminent political scientists and author of How Democratic is the American Constitution? (to which he correctly replies, not sufficiently). The review is of The Genius of America, by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes, and A More Perfect Constitution, by Larry Sabato. I am going to focus on Dahl’s review of Sabato’s book (which is on my to-read list).
Sabato’s book offers 23 reforms to improve the US Constitution. Quoting from Dahl now, with the internal quotations being from Sabato:
â€œThe small-state stranglehold on the Senate,â€ he writes, â€œis not merely a bump in the road; it is a massive roadblock to fairness that can and does stop all progressive traffic… It is the height of absurdity for our gargantuan states to have the same representation as the lightly populated ones.â€
His solution: â€œGive the 10 largest states two more Senate seats each, with the next 15 largest states gaining one additional seat.â€ He would also increase the size of the Senate to accommodate greater diversity in representation and to make it possible for former presidents and vice presidents to be awarded Senate seats.*
Definitely a good start. California would still be grossly underrepresented, though somewhat less grossly. I concede we won’t ever get Madison’s original second-chamber proposal (each state represented, according to population, by members nominated by their respective states and confirmed by the House of Representatives), and Sabato’s proposal is better in some respects than mine (concede equal representation, but with 3 or 5 per state, and each state’s delegation elected simultaneously by a non-majoritarian formula).
Sabato wants a 135-seat Senate and a 1,000-seat House. Even I, as an advocate of a much-expanded House, have never dreamed of going that far. In fact, I do not even think it would be a good idea. More is not always better, even if the current 435, fixed since the country was one third its current population, is ridiculously small. One thousand would make the US House by far the world’s largest representative body.
Sabato also says, according to Dahl, that “The Constitution itself must call for universal nonpartisan redistricting.” Constitutionalizing the redistricting process is a great idea–if one must remain within the single-seat district paradigm. Of course, if one is serious about democratizing the US Constitution, one must be prepared to break out of that paradigm. (If one had 1,000 members and nonpartisan redistricting, it would certainly increase the percentage of potential swing districts and maybe even make the odd third-party plurality achievable. But this goes too far on House size and not nearly far enough on electoral reform.)
But Sabato also has some loony ideas that sound like scraps left on the cutting room floor from one of Ross Perot’s campaign ads:
…mandatory limits on House and Senate terms in office [classic Peroism–MSS]… a balanced budget unless at least 55 percent of the members of each chamber voted to override it [just what we need: more obstacles in the way of the democratic majority**; and, are you ready for it?] extend the term of the president to six years, to which two more years might be added, for a total of eight, after a national referendum in which a majority of voters favored the extension…
A yes/no on extending a president’s term to eight years? Even Perot probably would find that nutty. Chavez, on the other hand…
Sabato also is evidently content with the electoral college:
automatically allocate a state’s electoral votes in presidential elections to “the winner of the certified popular vote in the state.”
This is a reform?
Sabato also proposes six-year terms for members of the House. That would be the world’s longest lower-house term, now that bastions of democracy like Sandinista-era Nicaragua have reduced the term to five (the longer end of term lengths around the world). Of course, this idea, combined with a successful referendum on extending a sitting president’s term, would result in nonconcurrent elections. I wonder if Sabato recognizes that as a problem. I guess I will have to read the book to find out.
Dahl concludes the review with words I wholeheartedly endorse:
A reluctance to engage in public discussions that might challenge the prevailing view of the Constitution as a sacred document will doubtless inhibit debate on Mr. Sabato’s proposals. This is not to say that they should all be adopted. But without a public discussion of proposals like this, too many American citizens will be unable to understand the virtues and problems of our Constitution and how it might be improved.
Indeed, as I have noted several times before (most recently on Constitution Day), it would be immensely useful to ean ourselves as a nation from what Thomas Jefferson called “sanctimonious reverence” for the Constitution and its founders.
Given that the increasing disparities of states’ sizes and the ever-increasing complexity of policy challenges in a globalized economy and warming climate, debate on our foundational political institutions will get more urgent over time. In this sense, Sabato, Dahl, and other prominent political scientists are doing us all a real service by their writings on these matters.
* This is not necessarily a bad idea, to keep their expertise in policy, but it has a very serious flaw: A party gets two new seats in the Senate for every living past president it has elected, thereby adding yet another lag on democratic responsiveness to a system that already has too many. Add the defeated candidates, too (and not only those of the biggest losing party!), and impose a limit of how long either former presidents or their defeated opponents can serve, and you might be getting somewhere. Drop the running mates from the plan.
** Really, it is hard to overestimate how much this goes against the grain of Sabato’s stated interests in reducing the “stranglehold” against “progressive traffic.”