Constitutional Reform

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Although any change in the Constitution can be labeled a reform, the broad term "constitutional reform" is usually reserved for proposed amendments that would alter in some fundamental way the structure of the government established by the nation's charter—that is, the organization of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, the distribution of power among them, and their interrelationships.

Rarely have structural amendments to the Constitution been adopted. Of the twenty-six amendments ratified since 1787, only two have affected the form or character of the institutions as they were designed by the Framers. The seventeenth amendment, ratified in 1913, required United States senators to be chosen by popular election rather than by state legislatures. The twentysecond amendment, approved in 1951, limits presidential tenure to two full terms. The other twenty-four amendments either have added substantive provisions (guaranteeing freedom of speech and religious liberty, abolishing slavery, providing for woman suffrage, and so on) or, while dealing with the governmental structure, have corrected flaws or made minor adaptations in the constitutional design without altering the nature or relationships of the institutions that compose the government.

The stability of the American constitutional structure contrasts sharply with the impermanence of governmental systems in many other countries, some of which have written, discarded, and rewritten entire constitutions during the period that the United States constitutional structure has remained virtually unchanged. The American experience undoubtedly reflects a general satisfaction with the governmental system, particularly with that system's original and distinctive feature—its separation of powers and checks and balances. It may also reflect the fact that the Constitution embodies probably the most difficult amending process of any constitution in the world. In the normal process, an amendment must be approved by two-thirds of each house of Congress and then be ratified by the legislatures (or constitutional conventions) of three-fourths of the states. The requirement for such extraordinary majorities confers an effective veto power on any sizable political bloc; an amendment must be favored by Republicans and Democrats alike, by both conservatives and liberals, by advocates of a strong presidency as well as defenders of Congress. Yet structural amendments redistribute power and hence create winners and losers among the political blocs. The potential losers can usually muster enough support, either in the Congress or in the state legislatures, to block action. (As an alternative to initiation by the Congress, amendments may be proposed by a constitutional convention organized at the request of two-thirds of the state legislatures; but no such convention has ever been called. ratification by three-fourths of the states would still be required.)

During the 1980s, the objective of constitutional reform attracted authoritative and well-organized support, expressed through two organizations made up of persons with long experience in high office. One, which included former officials of every administration from dwight d. eisenhower to ronald reagan, was created in 1982 to advocate a single six-year term for the President—a proposal with a history of support going back to andrew jackson. Ineligibility for reelection, the group argued, would enable the President to rise above politics and put the national interest ahead of personal reelection concerns. But the proposal encountered the objections, among others, that if the President is ineligible for reelection, he becomes a "lame duck" and hence loses authority, and that six years would be too long for a President who turned out to be ineffective. The proposal failed to win widespread support, and the movement faded.

The second organization, established in 1981, was the Committee on the Constitutional System, consisting of former members of Congress, former high executive officials, academics, and other political observers. Identifying the principal structural problem as one of conflict and deadlock between the executive and legislative branches, the committee undertook a broad consideration of remedies. Rejecting the six-year term for the President, the group recommended instead that the term of members of the house of representatives be extended from two years to four (a proposal advanced in 1966 by President lyndon b. johnson) and the term of senators from six years to eight. All House members and half the senators would be chosen in each presidential election, thus eliminating the present midterm congressional contests. Proponents contend that a four-year time horizon for the whole government would enable it to make difficult decisions that it does not now make because the next election is always imminent; opponents respond that the midterm election is a necessary check to enable the voters to register approval or disapproval of their government.

The committee also endorsed an amendment to permit members of Congress to serve in the presidential cabinet and other executive branch positions (a variation of proposals that won considerable support in earlier decades to give cabinet members nonvoting seats in the Congress and to require cabinet members, or even the President, to appear before Congress to answer questions). And it proposed to ease the process for approving treaties, by reducing the present requirement for a two-thirds vote of the senate to either 60 percent of the Senate or a constitutional majority of both houses.

Finally, the committee recommended consideration of two more radical reforms. One would reduce the likelihood of divided government (that is, one party controlling the executive branch and the opposing party ruling one or both houses of Congress), which the committee identified as conducive to deadlock and inaction, by requiring voters to choose between party slates for President, vice-president, Senate, and House. The second would provide a means for reconstituting a government that had proved incapable of governing—because of deadlock between the branches, presidential incapacity, corruption, or any other reason—by means of a special election in which the presidency, vice-presidency, and congressional seats would be at stake. Such a procedure would correspond to those by which legislatures in parliamentary democracies are dissolved and new elections held. These proposals, too, attracted little popular support, and constitutional reform remained a subject only for academic debate.

James L. Sundquist


Robinson, Donald L. 1989 A Government for the Third American Century. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Sundquist, James L. 1986 Constitutional Reform and Effective Government. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

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Constitutional Reform

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Constitutional Reform