June 20th, 2011
12:26 PM ET

Is it time to update the U.S. Constitution?

We all know how Americans revere the Constitution, so I was struck by the news that tiny, little Iceland is actually junking its own Constitution and starting anew using an unusual - some would say innovative - mechanism.

The nation decided it needed a new Constitution and it's soliciting ideas from all of Iceland's 320,000 citizens with the help of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This social media method has worked. Ideas have been flowing in. Many have asked for guaranteed, good health care. Others want campaign finance systems that make corporate donations illegal. And some just want the country to make shark finning illegal.

There is a Constitutional Council. It incorporates some of these ideas, rejects others, but everything is done in plain sight on the web. As one member of the Constitutional Council said, the document is basically being drafted on the Internet. 

Now, why do they need a new Constitution anyway? Well, after Iceland was crippled in recent years by the economic crisis, they all wanted a fresh start. And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.

You might be tempted to say that Iceland doesn't have any reasons to be proud of its political traditions in the manner that the United States does. Well, think again.

Iceland is home to the world's oldest parliament still in existence, the Althing, set up in 930 A.D. The rocky ledge on which they gathered represents the beginnings of representative government in the world. So Iceland has reasons to cherish its history, and yet it was willing to revise it.

By contrast, any talk of revising or revisiting the U.S. Constitution is, of course, seen as heresy. The United States Constitution was, as you know, drafted in a cramped room in Philadelphia in 1787 with shades drawn over the windows. It was signed by 39 people.

America at the time consisted of 13 states. Congress had 26 senators and 65 representatives. The entire population was about one percent of today's number - four million people.

America was an agricultural society, with no industry - not even cotton gins. The flush toilet had just been invented.

These were the circumstances under which this document was written.

Let me be very clear here, the U.S. Constitution is an extraordinary work - one of the greatest expressions of liberty and law in human history.

One amazing testament to it is the mere fact that it has survived as the law of the land for 222 years.

But our Constitution has been revised 27 times.  Some of these revisions have been enormous and important, such as the abolition of slavery. Then there are areas that have evolved. For example, the power of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, is barely mentioned in the document. This grew as a fact over history.

But there are surely some issues that still need to be debated and fixed.

The electoral college, for example, is highly undemocratic, allowing for the possibility that someone could get elected as president even if he or she had a smaller share of the total national vote than his opponent.

The structure of the Senate is even more undemocratic, with Wisconsin's six million inhabitants getting the same representation in the Senate as California's 36 million people. That's not exactly one man, one vote.

And we are surely the only modern nation that could be paralyzed as we were in 2000 over an election dispute because we lack a simple national electoral system.

So we could use the ideas of social media that were actually invented in this country to suggest a set of amendments to modernize the Constitution for the 21st Century.

Such a plan is not unheard of in American history.

After all, the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787 initially meant not to create the Constitution as we now know it, but instead to revise the existing document, the Articles of Confederation. But the delegates saw a disconnect between the document that currently governed them and the needs of the nation, so their solution was to start anew.

I'm just suggesting we talk about a few revisions.

Anyway, what do you think? Should we do this? And if we were to revise the U.S. Constitution, what would be the three amendments you would put in?

Let us know in the comment thread and we'll post the best ones on the Global Public Square.

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Topics: GPS Show • Law • What in the World?

soundoff (2,350 Responses)
  1. Geoffrey in Lowell MA

    Fortunately our Constitution has a way of changing without being replaced. I think we need an amendment that stops corporate and organizational donations to political campaigns and promotion of political ideals. This conduct recently unleashed by the Supreme court is drowning and manipulating the voice of the people. Certainly until then, I would not do anything so perilous as proposing a more sweeping change.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
    • USAForever!

      All that needs to happen is Corporations should have their status ans an individual taken away. They should have never been granted that status in the first place.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  2. Guff

    Anchor babies. This is a far different time then when the country was in it's infancy. People able to break the law to get here in order to have an anchor baby needs to be prevented.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  3. rockfalls

    1) The Electoral College shall be modified so that each state's delegates are determined by the popular vote times the percentage of eligible voters having voted in the previous national election, with the product rounded up to the next whole number. (This will favor states that encourage large turnouts, regardless of party, encouraging a robust democracy.)
    2) Laws shall be limited to a single topic, except in the case of budget/funding bills that shall only legislate budget/funding decisions. (To prevent extraneous "gotcha" provisions either party can use against the other.)
    3) Constitutional amendments may have expiration dates.
    4) Presidential signing statements shall have no force of law.
    5) Earmarks shall be allowed but the total dollar amount of all earmarks allotted for a single Congressional district or State each year shall not exceed the Federal tax revenue for that Congressional district or State for the previous year. (i.e., you can get the pork, but within limits.) Earmarks that benefit more than one State shall not be limited.
    6) Patents and copyrights held by U.S. citizens shall have their enforceable duration doubled. Patents and copyrights held by non-citizens or corporations with less than 50% of their assets in the United States shall not have the enforceable duration of their patents or copyrights extended, nor shall they be extendable.
    7) Supreme Court Justices shall have a mandatory retirement age of 85 years.
    8) Congress shall make no law restricting the privacy of individual citizens.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
    • rockfalls

      Sorry, last item should be a separate:
      8) Congress shall make no law restricting the privacy of individual citizens.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      Wow you have some great ideas. I would change a few though...

      1. Get rid of the electoral college, and have the president chosen by popular vote, but have a tiered voting system where voters have 3 (or however many) choices. First choice gets 5 points, Second gets 3, Third gets 1. Thus, rather than winding up with the swinging pendulum of politics, we may finally elect some moderates...! Presidents that might not be many people's first choice, but are considered "Acceptable" by a majority of Americans (hopefully more than 50%+1)

      3) All laws should have sunset dates except Constitutional Amendments. Call it a "trial period" where it can be experienced and monitored and determined if its a worthwhile program, then it can be reviewed and extended when the expiration approaches, or allowed to expire. Votes for extension should be explicit. This would force politicians to use the Amendment process for popular programs (that's why its there, after all!)

      June 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  4. Sven

    YES! Get rid of the electoral college!! It can't be that one candidate has 51% of the vote and STILL loses the presidential election! So much for "we are the people"....

    June 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  5. Colin

    I had a professor at Vanderbilt University that said you can never get rid of the Electoral College unless you want to get rid of the Senate too. Fareed, you are a smart person, but you write a lot of ignorant stuff. First, you demonized Netanyahu as the biggest impediment to peace without even mentioning what his concerns are or acknowledging the factual reality of rockets being launched into Israel. Then, you basically called him stupid by saying that he didn't understand modern warfare when you claimed that he was afraid of an army invasion from the Palestinians. He cited rockets and mortars in his speeches. Last time I checked Netanyahu was a soldier, and you never were. NOW, you complain about the electoral college which was created to protect smaller states from being outvoted by larger states and thus making their votes irrelevant. The Founding Fathers wanted to protect the votes of people from smaller states and less populated areas from being dominated by huge populations concentrated in a few areas. This is called protection of minority rights and similar sections of the Constitution protect minority rights from the will of the majority. This is why people move to the United States. The Electoral College was an ingenius way to make sure that majority and minority voices were accounted for in the election.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  6. Ronny Gidlund

    America is a REPUBLIC Not a democracy! Democracy is to elect officials and decide legislation. Democracy is MOB Rule! Ben Franklin warned us ..."we gave you a Republic, if you can keep it!!"
    "Over time, whoever controls the money system controls the nation."
    We NEED to update the monetary system and return it to WE THE PEOPLE not a private, elite, cartel of Foreign interests!

    June 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  7. John

    1. Federal Campaign Funding
    2. Political Representatives prohibited from accepting money or gifts of any type from any entity for any reason and prohibited from accepting employement from any federal contractor for five years after leaving office.
    2. Deploying US troops for any reason not directly related to protecting US territory or citizens prohibited without 3/4 ratification by all the states.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  8. ColdWarVet75

    They need to get rid of the amendment which allows foreigners born here citizenship. This was done during the reconstruction for the former slaves but is now used by any illegal alien.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  9. Tom

    Eliminate primary election. Replace them with "instant primaries" where we can rank all the candidates in order on a single national election day that is also an official holiday.

    Better yet, eliminate elections entirely, replace them with a system more like jury duty. Whatever kind of elections we have, the special interests will always figure out how to buy them. With no elections, they'd have to figure out how to control random chance instead :-).

    While we are trying to prevent plutocrats from buying control of the country, let's also severely restrict the power Congress has to actually do anything. Make Congress a goal setting body. Make implementing most goals be left to the states and local governments. If a congressman isn't worth the return on investment, they won't get bought as frequently.

    Or if you don't like such radical ideas, let's make failure to reduce the deficit trigger term limits. If one batch of congressmen can't cut spending, maybe a completely new batch can.

    Lots more ideas here: http://home.comcast.net/~tomhorsley/politics/politics.html

    June 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  10. Ty

    Anyone else think term limits for senators and congressmen/women might be a good idea?

    June 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • Guester

      Yes

      June 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  11. Common Sense

    This is what you expect from a socialist. The constitution prevents them from total federal control, which they want.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  12. Sven

    Oh, and NO MORE anchor babies... I worked hard to come here! I don't want people pressing out babies just so they can suck our system!

    June 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • JulianCA

      I'd go further and so no more immigrants (even ones that worked hard to get here). I think our population density is about perfect as it is. I don't see any reason to give citizenship to anyone from outside for any reason.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  13. SPGC

    For those of you who keep claiming the writer is calling for an overhaul and brand new constitution, go back and reread before you get all bent out of shape.

    His exact words: I'm just suggesting we talk about a few revisions.

    Boom.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • Ty

      Thank goodness someone read else read the article..

      June 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
      • Ty

        someone else read the article*

        June 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  14. Nancy

    I do not believe that Zakaria is suggesting that we abolish the Consitution as it stands today, but rather attempting to incite debate as to pertinent amendments that would make it better. I believe that many people misunderstand that term limites are inherently undemocratic, but instead many patriots above this comment seek limiting senators as a way to increase representation. While there are several benefits to incumbency, term limits would most likely cause moer ahrm than good, forcing a new wave of senators with no experience in national legislation nor interactment with foreign nations. The benefits to no term limits increase the quality of work that many senators and representatives do. They create relationships that forge better laws and relationships with other countries.

    However, many things in the US could stand to be amended in the Consitution. In order to be settled once and for all, the electoral college must be reformed with an Amendment that creates a national electoral system for electing the president.

    I merely encourage those who comment to consider that Zakaria wanted to insight debate, not some sort of anarchy or criticize the US government.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  15. Roelof

    USA should do exactly what Holland does. Seems we're the only western country, that doesn't get themselves in trouble and export 1/2 what USA does while we're 253 times smaller than the USA.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  16. AH

    Let us not fool ourselves into thinking we could improve upon the U.S. Constitution if it were re-written today. There is the amendment process for changes. The U.S. Constitution is the longest-surviving in the world today that is still in practice. It is worth pointing out that Fareed Zakaria is not an American by birth and the founders would probably consider a foreigner's suggestion to re-write the American Constitution to be rather suspect.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  17. Kevin

    Mr Zakaria,

    Its clear that you don't understand the issue when you say things like "(The Senate) is not one-man one-vote". If you understood what the founders were trying to accomplish, you'd realize that that is precisely the point.

    America is not a democracy, and that's a good thing, because even the people can be a tyrant. Its essential that the minority is protected from the abuse of the majority, because ultimately we are all minorities. We are the ultimate minority – the individual.

    That's why our government was established as it was – a federation of states, each autonomous unto itself (at least until the Civil War) where people could move between them and settle in the environment that suited them best. This is ideal, and thus states were instituted with equal representation in the Senate so that different people of different states with different moral codes would be protected from being railroaded by populous states. The people of California should have NO SAY about how Wisconsin is run – and I challenge you to respond with a reason why they should. That is why the Senate is balanced among members – so small states running "unpopular" experiments (say – by Californian standards) can block attempts at passing laws to shut down those experiments. Its a measure to ensure that the independence and sovereignty of the states remains unhindered to run their own states and their own experiments in accordance with the wishes of their own people.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  18. Immigrant Ray in MD

    Healthcare is not a right. It's a service. Unless you figure out how to make doctors and nurses slaves who work for free. That's why service is garbage in most countries where healthcare is a "right". There's a doctor shortage because docs are government workers with zero incentive to give good service or care.

    Education is a State issue and not a power for the Federal government. Federal power over education is a threat and it is also not Constitutional. We had incredible progress as a nation, producing amazing scholars, scientists, and intellectuals, before the Federal government ever got involved in education. The only thing that the DOE is good for is to empower teacher's unions and dictate propaganda to children.

    No Child Left Behind is a perfect example of a terrible program. My wife is a school teacher. She sees the result of touchy feely liberal policy on a daily basis. Kids aren't allowed to be flunked. Mediocrity is rewarded while hard work isn't. Superintendents are encouraged to pad statistics and put students into courses they don't belong in. Graduation rates are viewed favorabliy with no question as to the quality of the knowledge and ability of the graduates. Kids get passed in classes for merely showing up and get automatic credit of 50% for merely turning in work regardless of quality. THAT is the result of government involvement and centralized dictation of "standards".

    June 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • Immigrant Ray in MD

      And yes, George Bush was a progressive who advocated big government solutions to State problems.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  19. missing the point

    I think many of you are missing the point. The problem is the winner takes all system of assigning electoral college votes, not the electoral college itself. I see a lot of right-leaning and small state posters saying that they would be hurt if we moved to a popular vote. That is not necessarily the case.

    Take California for instance. There are plenty of Republican voters in California. Really only coastal California is hardcore Democrat. But California Republicans might as well throw their votes into the wind right now because there are not enough of them to get a majority Republican vote for the state and thus to get all the electoral college votes. But, if we revised the system so that electoral college votes were allocated proportional to the vote in the state then Republicans would get California votes in the presidential election. The same thing would happen in NY (only NYC metro is Democrat), IL (only Chicago votes Dem), etc.

    Right now if you live in a state where your political affiliation is not the majority you are basically wasting your vote on election day. A republican in California, a democrat in Alabama....why shouldn't those votes count?

    June 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  20. Chris

    The only reason some want a new constitution is because some cry babies are not getting their selfish ways. Forget them. They have been the wrong voice for america for far too long.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  21. Roelof

    Means USA could do 126,5 times better when you American would start living like the Dutch. We want NY back.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  22. vince

    Dear Fareed,

    For your information, we do have a revision mechanism for the Constitution. It's called the Amendment process, and it was designed deliberately to make changing the Constitution difficult. This is NOT something to be taken lightly, as you would render it to the whims of the masses expressing their impulses via Facebook or Twitter – what nonsense.

    Before you again compare us to Iceland (what absurdity) or any other nation, perhaps you should consider that were it not for the U.S. Constitution as it is presently written and the thousands of American servicemen whou have fought and died to uphold its principles, the "Icelands" of the world may not even exist today, let alone have the luxury of considering changing anything.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  23. Tony W

    "...any talk of revising or revisiting the American constitution is, of course, seen as heresy."

    "...our constitution has been revised 27 times."

    One of these observations negates the other.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  24. AZLib

    Not sure this could be done here. As a nation we are just far to split on to many issues. As a proud liberal I would want to find a way to get money out of politics. Get corporate, union and other money out of the pockets of politicians and thus allow them to actually represent the people. Never will happen. I would like to see a revew on language for guns... My goodness the founding fathers I'm sure never thought about 16 shot 9mm semi autos with 30 round clips for protections, but a lot of that comes back to the money (nra) in politics. Aborition? OMG there is a can of worms... Taxing churchs that do get involved in politics... Definition of Treason whereas American Companies, CEO's, Wall Street trade the safety and security of America for greed... Set specific words as to the usage of our military.. .wow both sides of the asle love to use our military everywhere they can and can't truly remember the last time (WWII?) that it had to do with national defence... national health care, I can go on and on... will never happen... but interesting through.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Reply
    • Immigrant Ray in MD

      Companies leave America because government makes it difficult to stay here. You stifle the personal freedom of the people who run businesses by limiting their ability to set up shop wherever they wish. Want them to stay? Quit strangling them with regulations. Want to get rid of their influence? Quit meddling in their buisness which encourages lobbying. It sets up crony capitalism, which isn't really a free market.

      What you advocate is tyranny.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  25. Jacob

    You're quite off base with the Senate argument, my friend. I'm with you on some of this, to an extent, but the Senate argument misses the point entirely. The whole reason every state gets two Senators with equal power is to ensure that the bigger states can't bully the smaller states. Your argument, that it should represent population, would completely annihilate the checks and balances put into place for the legislative branch. We already have a branch of Congress that represents the population. It's called the House of Representatives. Changing the Senate to a similar setup would beg for tyranny of the majority. Please, put more thought into things like this before you spew them out into the mainstream. You're putting ideas into thousands, if not millions, people's heads that just don't make any sense. You, as a CNN correspondent with an extremely large and visible platform, should be more responsible.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  26. wendy

    Whats wrong with you Americans you should value what you have here, go abroad and see what it is like,
    i emigrated here and earned my citizinship just celebrated my 43rd year being a citizen, and very very proud to be one.
    leave the constitution alone, you just dont know what freedom is, loose it then you will complain, i say people who do not
    not like it here go to another country and live there. BELIEVE ME YOU WILL BE BACK IN A HURRY. Wake up America

    June 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  27. rexknapps

    Pass a new Reapportionment Act. There should be 677 or so Representatives in the House in 2012. Read Federalist Paper 58. Repeal the 22nd Amendment. Read Federalist Papers 71 and 72. Pass a new Amendment to the Constitution that Specifies that in all cases US Senators are appointed by a States Governor and confirmed by that states legislature. Specify a time limit for that to happen before the President can appoint a Senator. Read Federalist Papers 62 and 63.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Reply
  28. Marc Schoenfeld

    Amendment #1– All members of the House of Representatives and the Senate shall be allowed no more than two terms. If its good enough for the President, its good enough for them.

    Amendment #2–All budgets must be balanced with a declared state of war being the only exception. If we need additional revenue that ALL Americans will be assessed a surcharge to go along with the income tax they pay with the mandated proviso that ALL Americans pay something. Just as there is a minimum tax to be sure that the wealthy pay something, there will be a minimum tax to be sure that everyone pays at least something–no exceptions

    Amendment #3–There will be no penalty for achieving success. We will no longer have the situation where the person that becomes educated, works hard and is successful will be assessed taxes while those who choose not to become educated, do not work hard and are not successful, spend all their money and then qualify for benefits while the person who saved and invested and did all that was expected, gets nothing.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  29. kcuhcsniknej

    This is a silly article, unless it is designed to be a leftist seed planting experiment. Mr Zakaria may have his marching orders, hmm, why don't you write an article about abolishing the US Constitution, just in a sort of "what if" kind of way? suggested his boss. Oh, good idea sir! If we get enough positive response, we might just push the envelope a bit further. Look, you bunch of clowns, the US Constitution is one of the most intelligent, absolutely incredible legal documents ever developed in the history of the world and I don't give a crap if the flush toilet had been invented yet. It is a brilliant work, living and breathing. If we want to make some changes to it, fine, that is what amendments are designed to do. And no, I don't want to leave the creation of a new constitution up to the general public. Have you walked around in a local Wal-Mart recently??? If you haven't and you'd like to truly understand why our country is likely, Terminal, an observing stroll through China's number one export distribution store will help bring a lot of clarity.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  30. Marie

    I agree that changes need to be made, and that's why we have the amendments. Unfortunately, some have been used to take AWAY rights rather than add them. Certain citizens are granted full or more rights than others. Also, the electoral college is obsolete and quite dangerous at this point in time. More discussion is needed, and the matter should be put directly to the people, if we are to move more closely to a democracy. Oftentimes our so-called representatives ignore our wishes and do exactly what they want; that's not representation or true democracy. Maybe some discussion/amendment regarding representation, true representation, needs to be encouraged as well.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Reply
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