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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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. Mike

    The one part I take issue with is that the author somehow thinks the electoral college and the 2000 election in America are example that only America has had contested elections. His quote "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."
    Perhaps the author could comment on the situation in Belgium.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • Denizen Kate

      Good point, Mike.

      June 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • jturgeon

      SHHHH stop making the liberal agenda look bad!

      June 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  2. Mark

    I suggested that the Constitution be scrapped for a new document way back in college, but was lambasted by my peers (most of them History majors, oddly enough) for "failing to understand" how the U.S. Constitution was still relevant today. They fell short of actually arguing that it was a timeless document, but I felt that's really what they were saying: that it never needed any such revision–just more ammendments, perhaps.

    Unfortunately, as much as I feel the Constitution is outdated and out to be replaced with a new document or at least HEAVILY revised/rewritten, I also feel that there is no way it could be practically done in a country as large and as politically divided as ours. Such a project would instantly become the biggest, more important political battleground, and the process would become so corrupted that the final product would be a bloated, incoherent, failed compromise of ideals, which would most likely satisfy no one, and perhaps cripple the country by failing to provide an concrete ideological/legal structure for the nation. Our current political system is so polarized that we can't even decide on an annual budget; we should NOT be trying to tackle something as large and important as rewriting our nation's principle legal document right now.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  3. Denizen Kate

    Iceland is using Facebook and Twitter as a medium for their citizens to make suggestions. Great, if your population is only 320,000, but multiply that by 10 and you have chaos.

    Our constitution may need a revision or two, but i don't think we're yet at the point where we should toss it aside and create a new one.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      Just think what would happen if you multiply it by 1000. 🙂

      June 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  4. Matt

    Here is an idea. Only those who pay taxes get a vote. And make taxes optional. That would solve the majority of our current problems.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • jturgeon

      It really would.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  5. Ron Hanson

    I think that Mr. Zakaria was fully aware of why the Senate representation is the way it is. But the question is, is this the best for all? Has this deliberate miss-representation of Senators relative to the population benefited the nation or harmed it? I honestly can't say, but I’d like to know if this has every been studied. I am sure that it has had an impact on many "pork barrel" laws that have been passed.

    As for the Electoral College, I agree that the States and not the Federal Government are responsible for playing politics with how these votes are apportioned, but a new constitution could rectify this quickly and easily. Popular vote makes the most sense. For years Senators were elected by state legislators and not the people. That was wrong and was changed, the Electoral College is wrong and should be removed.

    If we were to draft a new constitution, the main issue I would like it to address is how to build in incentives for law makers to make the tough decisions instead of always kicking them down the road for the next generation to solve. We have known for decades that Social Security would be in trouble once the baby boomer generation began to retire, but nothing was ever done about it. Our national debt is now crushing our economy and we have seen this coming for years, but done nothing about it. I believe this is because members of Congress are always pre-occupied with being re-elected and raising taxes and cutting funding for popular programs are not winnable election strategies. Maybe longer Congressional terms are needed. Maybe less competition and more cooperation is needed by requiring greater majority agreement on legislation. Maybe a new constitution could grant greater power to committees to draft laws and less freedom to the rest of Congress to amend them.

    This constitution isn't working well enough to meet the challenges that face us.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • The simple truth.

      If there is no Senate. There is no union. The reason for the Boston Tea Party would be the same reason behind it. The large pop states would simply over-ride the lop pop states in every thing they do without any question in the most urgent affairs of the union. The bicameral system perfectly balances the interests of large and smaller states. It should not be tainted simply because someone doesn't understand how it works and why it is the way that it is. The large states have the House as representation of the magnitude of their Voice. The Senate serves as the voice of all States as Union Members.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Reply
      • jturgeon

        Bravo, one of the most truthful, factual, and logical statements made today.

        June 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  6. Howard Markowitz

    1. Abolish the electoral college – there are so many states that have historically voted for the same party's presidential candidate every election. I live in one of those states and it begs the question of why I should even for the president when I already know where the electoral votes are going.
    2.Throw out all the lobbyists – most of laws are made based on money and not on justice or a sense of what is right.
    3.Take the profit out of health care and and drugs. The whole system is broken as the ones that need medical treatment and drugs the most, are the least capable to afford them. It makes a sham of one of our unalienable rights – the pursuit of a healthy life.

    For what's its worth, the founding fathers felt the constitution was an experiment. That in 20 or 30 years from its inception it might have to be blown up and completely redone. That in each generation the society norms and the advancement of technology would change the landscape of our society so it would at least be necessary to heavily revise the constitution, if not blow it up completely.This is what the expectation was.

    So I think that Fareed's general assertion is correct. Just my 2 cents.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  7. dave48

    Don't update the Constitution. Update the people who want to change it.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  8. No

    No.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  9. Brandon

    Term limits for all elected and appointed positions in the federal government.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  10. David

    John

    David – If Bush slept for eight years, than why is Obama continuing many of his policies, including the War on Terror in Afganistan and the Bush tax credits? Because they were successful. By the way, why aren't you outraged that Obama went back on two campaign promises; war and taxes? He's also attacking countries without consulting or even telling congress. Yeah, you gotta hand it to those democratic presidents. You voted for him, I sure didn't. You wanted him, you got him!!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm >>>>>>>>there is no more a danger to Americans than the Republican party!!! just look at their core philosophies...ie corporate welfare and tax cuts for the ultra mega rich....these things will turn America into a third world country!!! Do you know how a lot of the third word countries got to be that way???when the ruling wealthy class decided they owned and deserved the larger share of the nations wealth!!! how can you justify only 400 people in America have more weath than the rest of the poulation does that make sense? We need to go back to clinton tax levels that helped create 22 MILLION jobs and the brainwahsed republican base have to wake up!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  11. What needs to change

    Reductions in education, increased misinformation and distractions, and corruption of government by high influence corporations and groups from its intended purpose is all that threatens our union. Remove these, and America prospers.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  12. Gene Grossman

    A sworn peace office carries a gun. A congressman can vote to start a war that can kill hundreds of thousands. Each one of them can 'press a button' that can cause death.

    The police office must pass a drug test and a psychological interview. Some law enforcement personnel must submit to lie detector tests. Even employment at Home Depot requires a drug test.

    We should make elected officials pass the same strict entrance requirements as peace officers. Maybe that would weed out a few of the sex addicts, paranoid, religious fanatics or other deviants like the ones we have seen during the past few decades... and it wouldn't be a bad idea to make each one of them also pass the same test that has been suggested that regular citizens must pass before voting.

    June 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  13. Robert

    All citizens age 18 or greater must perform community service every two years. Voting shall count as community service and fulfill this obligation entirely. Alternatively, a citizen may preform 40 hours of community service with an organization of their choice that has a non-profit status and is not involved political activities, including political donations.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • jturgeon

      Making community service mandatory... nice little authoritarian government you have in the making there pal

      June 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Reply
      • Robert

        Apparently you only read the first sentence. It is a way to require voting. The community service aspect prevents people from buying their way out of it if the penalty was a fine. One of our issues in this nation is that everyone complains but at most 50% of people vote.

        This is basically saying if you don't vote then fix it yourself.

        June 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
      • jturgeon

        "Voting shall count as community service and fulfill this obligation entirely"

        I read it, loud and clear. It's where you require someone to vote or basically face a fine of community service, that is the problem.

        June 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
      • jturgeon

        how about this, only people who PAY TAXES vote. that way, only the people who have their income at stake have a partial say in how it is used.

        June 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
      • Robert

        That seems to be going away from that whole democratic ideals thing. History shows us it doesn't work. It would disenfranchise millions who are unemployed through no fault of their own. A single persons may not have a dramatic impact on policy but it is a outlet to attempt to influence policy. If people don't think they have that they will take other options, ones that are more destructive to society.

        June 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
      • jturgeon

        by millions, you mean the 9.1% that aren't employed?

        June 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
      • Robert

        It also adds other issues to the fire. What happens when you have a stay at home parent? Are they eligible to vote? How about a person so disabled that they can not work? What do you define as taxes? Does sales tax count? If not, do we allow people to vote who work at jobs that pay so low they get all of their federal income tax back? It could get complex. If a retired person pays city or state sales tax but no federal income tax are they eligible to vote in all elections or just the city and state elections?

        June 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
      • jturgeon

        how about this compromise, vote only if you pay taxes. If you are unemployed, then community service can replace the tax requirement. So either way, you are contributing.

        June 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
      • Robert

        That isn't a compromise. It is doing it the way you want an penalizing those who are unemployed.

        I think a mandatory voting system would generate better results. The penalty isn't so harsh that it creates an insurmountable barrier but it is harsh enough that people will probably just vote. I would add a 'none of the above' to ballots with mandatory voting and prevent anyone who was defeated by 'none of the above' from running for the same office for one full term of that office.

        June 20, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
      • Benjamin Franklin

        oh so penalizing the unemployed is bad but penalizing anyone else who doesn't want to vote is okay. See how asinine they both sound now?

        June 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
      • Benjamin Franklin

        The point would be to keep the masses or the unemployed/poor to vote themselves money from the population through welfare...

        June 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
      • Benjamin Franklin

        The point of the tax or community service requirement would be to keep the masses or the unemployed/poor to vote themselves money from the population through welfare... I see, that kind of makes sense...

        June 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
      • Robert

        @Ben

        Government with mandatory voting tend to be more stable than those with optional voting. This also is true of nations with high voter turnout when compared to those with lower voter turnout.

        They also tend to be more prone to having governments that compromise.

        June 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  14. eric

    We don't need to start over. We have amended our constitution when necessary. It's the basis for our laws and lawsuits. If you completely gut the constitution, then you have to re-evaluate all laws for constitutionality.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  15. TJ

    Re-write the U.S. Constitution based on Facebook or YouTube comments! LOL!

    June 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  16. Nathan H

    The first thing that comes to mind is to repeal the 17th amendment to return election of Senators to the states and thus give the states a real voice in government.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  17. Imagine the flame war.

    If the constitution were up to modification via social media.. can you imagine the sheer magnitude of the outcry from all corners of the U.S.?

    June 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  18. Mike

    While not all direct amendment changes these are 3 that come top of mind:

    Term limits for congress – the role of congress has become a career vs. a limited public service role. Some of the current members have been through multiple administrations yet continue to blame the woes of the country on the very administrations they served in yet take credit for any successes. If this was senior management at any compney they would have been fired long ago. Decisions are predominately made to prolong their lucrative careers vs. what is good for the country.
    Eliminate the electoral college as it does not truly represent "by the people" but rather a "select set of people". It also opens up the system to influential powers such as lobbying groups.
    Reshape the election structure to eliminate the current 2 party system. Being forced into one track or the other detracts from the core issues facing a country and immediately creates a divide on development of solutions to the issues.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  19. CPB

    1) No elected official – federal or state – may serve more than 2 terms in the same elected position.
    2) The Federal budget must be balanced every year.
    3) All appointed judges are limited to no more than 10 years on the bench.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • Theodore

      AZ tried #1 for their state positions. Now they just swap offices every two terms. Their state legislature has a 90% incumbency rate if you ignore the idea that a state senator is now a representative and the reverse.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • Inspector Cluseau

      Hear, here. Exactly my choices, and in that order too.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  20. KIRK

    are you nuts its why they put it that way ONE STATE GETS TWO VOTES PERIOD IN SENATE
    AND IN CONGRESS ITS BASED ON POPULATION it was only way to get small states to join if you go one person one vore only east and west coast would choose pres th union would dissolve NOT GOING TO HAPPEN WHILE I BREATH solidiers took oath to protect constitution and you need 2/3 of states to ratify AGAIN NTO GONNA HAPPEN

    June 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  21. MelGibson2012

    No Mr Immigrant, its not time nor will it ever be time.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  22. KIRK

    IM SO UPSET ABOUT WHAT HE TYPED I CANT EVEN TYPE IM SHAKING SO BAD need to go take blood pressure meds

    June 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  23. Bill

    "Let's revise the Constitution because we have Facebook!" Brilliant! Will every teenager with a cell phone get to vote for their favorite amendment nine times? After all, the Founders didn't have cell phones, so they couldn't possibly understand how to govern a nation.

    There is already a mechanism for amending the Constitution. Two thirds of both houses must vote to propose an amendment and then 38 states must ratify it. It's supposed to be hard to change, Zakaria! You need true bipartisan support, and the buy-in of a vast majority of the nation's voters. It keeps the document from being watered down with special interest BS. The problem with our government isn't the age of the Constitution or when the flush toilette was invented, it is the people we have elected. Want to make a change? Vote wisely!!

    June 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  24. Dennis Ferguson

    Yes, we need a new constitutional convention to restore democracy. The Republicons are a worse threat to this country than Al Qaeda.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • Thinker67

      The United States is NOT a democracy. It is a Republic under rule of law. Our government protects everyone from the belief that majority rules so that 50.1% of the population cannot tell 49.9% of the population what to do. A good example of a PURE democracy was the French Revolution - all in favor of taking off her head, raise your hands.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • che-3

      They're INFIDELS to tell you the truth.
      I thought Osama Bin Laden was most Evil. The Rethugs amazingly beat Osama Bin Laden on this scale.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  25. David

    amend constitution – Restore NATIONALISM!!! You are either American or you are not!!! NO DUAL CRAP!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  26. Thinker67

    Hey, I have a better idea. Instead of trying to change the constitution lets try to follow it! The constitution is the supreme law of the land. That being said, one cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. So what is this cr*p about eminent domain? Tax leins on homes and property because of failing to obey an HOA? Needing a license for selling lemonade? How about applying the constitution to any law being passed? That way you'll know when government is overreaching. Don't change the constitution - ENFORCE IT.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  27. Michael

    Where do we get the idea that we are a democratic government. The founding of our government is a representative republic. Democracies are mob rule! Is the Electoral College obsolete? No it still allows for small voices to make a difference. The only democratic form of government is the Congress where the majority rule on legislation. It is true the powers of the President and Judiciary have taken on increased powers, this only because we the people have allowed it. You want to limit congress and Senate to term limits, then vote them out to have that power.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  28. Christopher

    I have just one simple change that I think would greatly improve the legal system:
    All Supreme Court decisions must be decided by the vote of a minimum of two judges. There are nine judges, if none have recused a binding decision would have to pass by a 6-3 margin. The law should not be open to subjective opinions, to change the law of the land by one vote suggests that it's not a clear decision and should not be binding.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  29. U.S. Common Sense

    Seriously? Zakaria is still crying over the Al Gore loss? When will the Left get over the fact that he lost? Sure, let's just toss out the Constitution because you didn't get your way. I wish people would "Move On" and get over it.

    Zakaria isn't alone in his misunderstanding of the Constitution, the Electoral College, and the Senate though. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post had a similar "oh woe is the Left" moment earlier this year, referenced in this article: http://uscommonsense.net/2011/05/19/ezra-klein-young-voters-and-the-electoral-college/

    The Senate isn't "even more undemocratic" as Zakaria complains. The Senate is purely democratic in it's role, as representation of the sovereign States that make up the Union. It is the House that represents the people – both those from Wisconsin and California alike – Mr. Zakaria. Maybe you missed that in school one day.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • TheyNotHim

      Gore didn't lose, the election was stolen by Bush and his toadies in Florida and in the Supreme Court. This was patently obvious to anybody that paid any attention at all to the proceedings.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Reply
      • U.S. Common Sense

        Keep believing that if it makes you feel better. You can join your friends who feel that 9/11 was an inside job and that Obama was born in Kenya while you're at it.

        June 21, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  30. Henry Miller

    It's unusual that I disagree with Mr Zakaria, but this is one of those times.

    "The electoral college, for example, is highly undemocratic..."

    The Electoral College exists because the founders of the country knew full well the dangers of mob rule. The purpose of the College is to provide a check on that possibility

    "The structure of the Senate is even more undemocratic..."

    The Senate was supposed to represent the interests of the individual states, not of individual people–that's the role of the House. The so-called "Great Compromise" that established the Senate was meant to keep small states from becoming the victims of more populous large states, and to keep all states from becoming the victims of the federal government. Given outrageous usurpation by the federal government of the powers reserved to the states, the role of the Senate needs to be strengthened, not reduced. The Seventeenth Amendment, making Senators the representatives of the people rather than of the states, was a big mistake and should be repealed.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • jturgeon

      stop trampling on the liberal parade with the truth!

      Excellent post sir, the country would be better off if all voters knew and remembered things such as what you have stated

      June 20, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Reply
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