I think it’s fair to say that we’re long overdue for another constitutional convention. Of course, the odds of one actually occurring are extremely slim, and even if we got one I can’t confidently say we wouldn’t be worse off for it. Not that everyone at the last one was a great statesman or anything, but they did have their Franklins, Hamiltons and Madisons, and those are in pretty short supply these days.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have our own hypothetical convention. And I think there’s value to the exercise, particularly since structural issues like the filibuster are gaining greater prominence. At this point, everyone knows that something’s not working–the question is what would work. And in order to figure that out, we need to envision the ideal American political system.
Note that I said the ideal American system. That means that if your wondrous ideal political system were to assume power tomorrow, the people being governed would still be Americans, in their various unique positions, on this unique landmass with its unique natural resources and meteorological features. The exercise is constrained, just as a real constitutional convention would be, by the weight of our history and competing interests. No perfectly ordered utopia of thoroughly indoctrinated subjects here.
Obviously, that’s not to say that discussion of purely ideal systems is irrelevant. They can be a useful guide, although one with limited applicability. The point of this exercise is to figure out what, if anything, can be done for this country in the foreseeable future.
You can probably guess where this is headed by now. All of these conditions strongly suggest that for better or for worse–and on balance I’d argue that it’s for better, which I’m guessing is a pretty uncontroversial statement–we’re preserving the basic structure of the federal government. Meaning three independent branches: a democratically elected executive, a democratically elected legislature, and an appointed judiciary.
Within that frame, there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement; the electoral college should go, for example, and it would be nice if Supreme Court justices didn’t get lifetime appointments. But the institution in most immediate need of reform–which was, of course, the impetus for this post–is the United States Senate.
Dylan was pretty ahead of the curve here, calling for the total abolishment of the Senate as early as April. And a unicameral legislature has a certain appeal to it, although I don’t think it passes the conceivability test as far as results from our hypothetical convention go.
Besides, I’m interested to see if a philosophical argument can be made for the Senate. Not in its present form, but overall. And once that’s argument made–once we figure out what the Senate’s good for–then we’ll be able to imagine it in its ideal form. And hopefully that will point the way for how best to reform it.