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Rethinking the Constitution

A group of academicians, political scientists, and former government officials gather in Washington today to worry about the Constitution. The Constitution is two centuries old minus three years. The group here thinks it is in trouble.

It takes courage to hint that the Constitution needs changes - that is, major changes. Minor changes are proposed all the time, though their batting average of adoption is poor. But major recasting? The US Constitution, with reason, is venerated in America. It was the most radical practical governmental instrument on earth when first put into effect and it worked! Who are the men who have the audacity to want to change it, and what would they do?

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It's not a crackpot group. It is about 200 people called the Committee on the Constitutional System. It is incorporated with modest offices in downtown Washington. Co-chairmen are Lloyd N. Cutler, former counsel of President Carter, and C. Douglas Dillon, former secretary of the Treasury, now an executive of Dillon, Read & Co. Associated with their work are such men as former Republican House leader John Rhodes of Arizona; former Transportation Secretary William Coleman of the Nixon administration, James Sundquist of the Brookings Institution, James MacGregor Burns of Williams College, and others.

They argue that the Constitution's operation is sometimes clumsy and awkward, that the divided authority in Washington often produces deadlock, that the process of selecting a president is protracted and clumsy. Do something about it? Well, the group is setting up a series of panels (of which this interested reporter finds himself to be a participant) to discuss certain proposals. But first, perhaps, it must decide whether there is a problem at all.

Dr. Burns is certain there's a problem. He has a book coming out. He says that ''the American political system faces a pervasive crisis of self-confidence that only the rarest kind of leadership can overcome.''

It is interesting to explore this alarming charge, made by one of the most respected students of the Constitution, that Americans are ''abandoning'' their system. What does he mean? He means that a lot of voters don't vote. He argues that while our system is inspired in many respects, increasing numbers of citizens, for one reason or another, are coming to election day asking, ''What's the use?''

Is it really as bad as that, one asks; how does one bring voters back to the polls?

Brookings scholar Sundquist agrees that something is amiss; he writes that while the system of divided powers in government sometimes works well, it often drags out (as in the budget deficit). He says ''the whole clumsy apparatus of the national government will continue, as it always has, to function in fits and starts, with more deadlock than dynamism, more drift than distraction.''

For the last four presidential elections the percentage of eligible voters who voted has gone down: It was only 53.95 percent in 1980. In midterm elections the turnout was smaller. ''Two-thirds of our people do not even vote,'' President Carter said in July 1979. And he warned of a ''crisis of confidence.'' It is only one problem the gathering here discusses this weekend. Dr. Burns calls it ''desertion.''

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''This desertion takes its most dramatic form in the massive failure of 50 million Americans to take part in even the most crucial elections. . . . The most evident cause is a sharp decline in basic trust in government. Over a span of almost 20 years, a sample of 1,418 respondents have been asked, 'How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right - just about always, most of the time, or simply some of the time?'

''Those responding 'just about always' or 'most of the time' fell from almost 80 percent in 1964 to about 25 percent in 1980. During the same time, the proportion of people believing that government 'is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves' as against 'run for the benefit of all people' rose from less than 24 percent to almost 70 percent.''

Why do voters of most other democracies like Canada turn out 70 to 80 percent at election? One can wonder about this without accepting extreme views. In the meantime the bipartisan Cutler-Dillon group continues its research. Its charter instructs it ''to study and analyze the constitutional structure of the legislative and executive branches . . . and the relationship of these branches with state and local governments.''

What would Thomas Jefferson say? He wanted a constitutional convention every generation.

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