Sabato’s 23

Larry Sabato is generally a very good political analyst. Few American-specialized political scientists actually apply their work in the form of electoral predictions, but Sabato does and is almost always right. But his latest book, via Nick Beaudrot, isn’t about electoral politics. It’s a set of 23 proposed constitutional amendments, and although high school civics students would probably love to be able to say there are 50 constitutional amendments, there isn’t much to love in Sabato’s lot. Some of the proposals are good-intentioned, but stop short in weird ways:

1. Expand the Senate to 136 members to be more representative: Grant the 10 most populous states 2 additional Senators, the 15 next most populous states 1 additional Senator, and the District of Columbia 1 Senator.
19. Mend the Electoral College by granting more populated states additional electors, to preserve the benefits of the College while minimizing the chances a President will win without a majority of the popular vote.

I really see no reason why, if we’re fiddling with it anyway, we shouldn’t just do away with the Senate. It’s profoundly anti-democratic and it disenfranchises residents of large states in a big way. A given voter in Wyoming has 73 times as much say in the composition of the Senate as a given voter in California; there’s no possible way to justify that. And weird compromises like the one Sabato proposes don’t eliminate the problem, and would actually approach the current level of disenfranchisement as states’ populations polarize.
The same is true of his Electoral College proposal. Let’s be clear on something: there is no benefit to keeping the Electoral College. None. There is no possible justification that is not based on small-state chauvinism. His compromise, like his Senate compromise, is better than nothing, but it has no explanation for why it doesn’t go all the way.
At least these proposals aren’t just plain wrong, like some of the rest of the 23:

2. Appoint all former Presidents and Vice Presidents to the new office of “National Senator.”
6. Establish term limits in the House and Senate to restore the Founders’ principle of frequent rotation in office.
7. Add a Balanced Budget Amendment to encourage fiscal fairness to future generations.
14. Grant Congress the power to set a mandatory retirement age for all federal judges.
15. Expand the size of the Supreme Court from 9 to 12 to be more representative.
22. Create a Constitutional requirement that all able-bodied young Americans devote at least 2 years of their lives in service to the country.

Maybe it’s just because I don’t want Bush or Cheney to have any political power whatsoever come January 20, 2009, but this National Senator idea just seems silly. If instituted when Bush leaves office, it would add eight new senators with no democratic accountability and, simultaneously, a disproportionate amount of leverage over their fellow members (okay, maybe not Quayle). It seems like a recipe for national political machines.
The term limits idea may seem attractive, but, believe it or not, I actually want experienced legislators running my Congressional committees. People like David Obey, Ted Kennedy, and Charlie Rangel are effective at leading their committees precisely because they’ve been doing it for such a long period. If someone’s good at doing their job, it makes little sense to boot them after an arbitrary period because “it’s someone else’s turn”.
The Balanced Budget Amendment is just dumb. See Ezra for more on that.
The retirement age amendment would be a very attractive thing to tinker with if Congress didn’t like a particular judge. Giving Congress the implicit power to fire judges doesn’t seem smart.
While I think the Supreme Court’s small size has its advantages in terms of encouraging collegiality and debate, I wouldn’t have particularly strong feelings about the court expansion proposal if it were to 11, or 13. But making it ridiculously easy for the SCOTUS to tie seems very, very dumb.
And maybe I’m saying this because I’m an able-bodied young American who would be affected by the service proposal, but forcing teenagers against their will to, say, mentor inner city youth or join the Peace Corps or (especially) join the military strikes me as counterproductive. You’ll just have a large number of unmotivated “volunteers” who won’t be devoting themselves to the task the way voluntary workers would. I doubt the military, the Peace Corps, or programs like CityYear would actually support a national service requirement, as I doubt they’d want the kind of workers it would produce.
The rest of the proposals are a mix of the vague:

10. Limit some Presidential war-making powers and expand Congress’s oversight of war-making.
17. Write a new constitutional article specifically for the politics of the American system.
23. Convene a new Constitutional Convention using the state-based mechanism left to us by the Framers in the current Constitution.

The interesting (but which I have no strong feelings about):

4. Lengthen House terms to 3 years (from 2) and set Senate terms to coincide with all Presidential elections, so the entire House and Senate would be elected at the same time as the President.
5. Expand the size of the House to approximately 1,000 members (from current 435), so House members can be closer to their constituents, and to level the playing field in House elections.
9. Establish a new 6-year, 1-time Presidential term with the option for the President to seek 2 additional years in an up/down referendum of the American people.
16. Give federal judges guaranteed cost of living increases so pay is never an issue.

And the decent but not exactly original:

3. Mandate non-partisan redistricting for House elections to enhance electoral competition.
8. Create a Continuity of Government procedure to provide for replacement Senators and Congresspeople in the event of extensive deaths or incapacitation.
11. Give the President a line-item veto.
12. Allow men and women not born in the U.S. to run for President or Vice President after having been a citizen for 20 years.
13. Eliminate lifetime tenure for federal judges in favor of non-renewable 15-year terms for all federal judges.
18. Adopt a regional, staggered lottery system, over 4 months, for Presidential party nominations to avoid the destructive front-loading of primaries.
20. Reform campaign financing by preventing wealthy candidates from financing their campaigns, and by mandating partial public financing for House and Senate campaigns.
21. Adopt an automatic registration system for all qualified American citizens to guarantee their right to vote is not abridged by bureaucratic requirements.

But I’m still struck by how bizarre this whole enterprise is. There isn’t some coherent theme to these amendments; it’s just political views of Larry Sabato placed into amendment form. While there’s a bias towards proposals that would be hard to implement in Congress, many (the primary schedule, the automatic voter registration, size of the House, judicial pay) could just as easily be passed without changing the Constitution. It just seems like an excuse for Sabato to release a political platform. That’s not to say that I have any problem with Sabato releasing a political platform, but this just seems like a weird way to go about it.

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