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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

    I can't believe this questions has come up, but then again seeing it is CNN, I can understand. This is one of the nerviest things CNN has put on its website. Now we are being compared to Iceland? To people who don't even have last names because it is so small? Give me a break. The U.S. Constitution does not need to be rewritten, but it certainly needs to be enforced as is, and for the States, not for Wash. DC to make believe it was written for the Federal Government, but for the United States.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • professorwilliam

      Hi Susan,

      Thomas Jefferson would disagree... he believed we should have periodic revolutions (every 20 years or so). He believed, correctly so, that we should not be bound by what a long dead generation wanted... anymore than the colonists should be bound to the wishes of another country.


      June 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  2. professorwilliam

    I would do the following three amendments:

    1. PayGo: Each piece of legislation must include in the same legislation how it will be paid for (with spending cut offsets from other parts of the budget, or revenue increases). In the event of emergency (declared by a minimum of 2/3 of each chamber of Congress), PayGo can be suspended for a 12 month period. This State of Emergency can be renewed with an ongoing super majority of 2/3 vote.

    2. Proportional Representation: Following the British example, we would seek to end the duopoly on power... and give a voice for libertarians, populists, socialists, etc that do not have a real political party to represent their views.

    3. Parliamentary System: A parliament (the House) would hold legislative power, and would elect from their membership a Prime Minister. We end the inability to know who is responsible for bad policy... when a party is in power, and things do not work, we would KNOW who to fire. This would end the Executive and Legislative able to just blame each other, and both get re-elected.

    These three amendments provide: Economics being added to the budget (they have to choose how to use scarce resources rather than just always use the national credit card and not consider cost), a voice for everyone (so we do not have to just pick between the least of evils... and with more choices, we can actually have a reason to vote), and accountability (we will know who made the policy, and therefore beable to fire them if they screw up).

    June 20, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • Respectfully Disagree

      1. PayGo: Each piece of legislation must include in the same legislation how it will be paid for (with spending cut offsets from other parts of the budget, or revenue increases). In the event of emergency (declared by a minimum of 2/3 of each chamber of Congress), PayGo can be suspended for a 12 month period. This State of Emergency can be renewed with an ongoing super majority of 2/3 vote.

      –Bad idea. What constitutes emergency? 9/11? Wildfires? Joplin Tornado? Katrina? Afghanistan/Iraq/Libya? BP Oil Spill? GM/Ford/AIG Bankruptcy? Recent History is full of "emergencies"... one Congressman's emergency is another ones annoyance and it would split based on political party making it just as political as it already is.
      2. Proportional Representation: Following the British example, we would seek to end the duopoly on power... and give a voice for libertarians, populists, socialists, etc that do not have a real political party to represent their views.

      –they do have a voice. They are a minority and the power goes to those who have a majority. This is what our democracy is about. You may argue that the electoral college proves a majority doesn't rule.. wrong.. its given to the states as well that majority wins.. and GWB won Florida's majority by 537 votes.. and thus a majority of the electoral votes..

      3. Parliamentary System: A parliament (the House) would hold legislative power, and would elect from their membership a Prime Minister. We end the inability to know who is responsible for bad policy... when a party is in power, and things do not work, we would KNOW who to fire. This would end the Executive and Legislative able to just blame each other, and both get re-elected.

      - well if you didnt know, the American people did fire the party in power in Nov 2010, at least in the House... as well as in Nov 2008.. with the presidency and both chambers of Congress.. In fact about every 6-10 years the parties get fired en masse..

      June 20, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
      • Tom Gregory

        This post makes a powerful and evidence based point: The current system produces failure of the parties in power. Every 6 to 10 years we fire the party in power. The party system with its coalitions is self defeating.
        The elected officials, in order to get elected, must promise what they cannot fulfill, and then, if elected, must vote for lobbyist, special interest, and coalition proposals in order to fund re-election. This is reality and most federal government is inefficient at best and a failure at worst. Only a major change in the Constitution (elections and the voting process) will solve the problem. There are several solutions, and Iceland has offered one.

        June 21, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  3. Adam A.

    There are a few things that could be done in rewriting the constitution to make our system of government function more effectively.

    I believe we would be much more successful with a Parliamentary system, complete with a Premier/Prime Minister and the Cabinet in the House of Representatives, motions of no-confidence, opposition days, question period, and where governments can fall if a budget isn't passed. Keep the Senate represented as it is by the states, but remove the filibustering ability. Also, the House should be able to override the Senate on any matters of national finance. Change the Senate to where ~half is elected every three years.

    For the Presidency, make it a more ceremonial position... still as commander-in-chief, and he/she still has to grant assent or veto to every bill, but the House could be able to override the President on financial matters with a super majority. Make the President's term a single, non renewable 6 year term.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  4. jon

    Hitler and Stalin could not make the people of the USA give up their constitution and this little brown man will? LOL-dpeort him to whatever third world he came from or his parents did-anchor baby? You betcha!

    June 20, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  5. Lu

    One human, one vote in Presidential elections–abolish the electoral college. A declaration of the Rights of Nature and a commitment to clean air and water, because after all, humans need these things to thrive and we are continually fouling our nest. A firm declaration that corporations are not people and as such, are not allowed to contribute to political campaigns in any way, shape, or form.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  6. JONH


    June 20, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
    • Texas Annie

      Got hate, do you?

      June 20, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
    • Are you?

      Are you a mouth breather, an inbred, or a mouth breathing inbred?

      June 20, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • Argle Bargle

      OK. Let's start with you, JonH....you're obviously a bum.

      June 20, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  7. Nic

    Pulling Constitution ideas from Facebook?! Are they serious?! "Like...OMGZ...the US shud totally, like, get rid of hatez and presidentz an jus let uz run our selfs." Yeah......great idea! Now ball it up, and throw it in the trash.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  8. Adam A.

    Oh, and on elections, set up an independent electoral commission that runs every federal election and creates every district, ensuring that they are fair and not gerrymandered. For the House of Representatives, have 450 district seats determined by Instant Runoff Voting. Have an additional 50 seats given by national party vote where a party has to receive 2% to obtain a seat. This would allow for more parties and viewpoints to have a say in the house. Limit campaign periods to 60 days in general elections and 30 days in by-elections.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  9. bcalb

    It makes sense that Fareed Zakaria would want to change America. He probably wants us to be more Eastern in a lot of ways. I think the fact that some tweeking has taken place shows that efforts are being made to address any updating necessary.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  10. resonableman

    I believe the constitution needs a full overhaul. Unfortunately instead of being written by a small group of patriots it would be written, as most laws are in this country, by special interests and lobbies. NO THANK YOU!

    June 20, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  11. Texas Annie

    I'm not sure I would want to see it happen...
    With the ultra right attitude today, I could see a constitution that would force me to pray to a specific God. I'm a Christian, but many of my friends are of various other religions, and I just can't see forcing a specific religion on anyone. So thanks, but no thanks to any new constitution that might force another's beliefs on them.
    I could see segments of our population being blantantly discriminated against under the guise of a new constitution. I'm as white and as straight as they come & married to the same guy for over 40 years, but I have friends who are of other ethnic originals and friends who are divorced and friends who are gay, and they are all wonderful caring people. So thanks, but no thanks to any new constitution that might discriminate against them.
    I just hope that sometime before I die that I can see Americans come together again as Americans and knock off all this us against them, right against left, I'm right – you're wrong mentality. I've been on this earth 65 years now, and it truly saddens me to see how people have become so hateful & mean to others. Aren't we all supposedly created equally? Then when are we going to start acting like it?

    June 20, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  12. Steven

    We are a republic....not a democracy. Anyone saying our election system is not democratic is missing the point.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  13. Big B

    There is way too much grey area in our government. The two parties argue in order to try and please their party to the extreme degree in order to remain elected officials and enjoy the good life. The boundaries of government need to be established. Where does the interest of the people begin and end? What are the limits to social programs needed? What are requirements needed to wage war? What are reasonable tax requirements of every person AND corporation. The Bill of Rights seems to be protecting us from the government but now the government is being hijacked by corporations and bending it to their will. So, who protects the government from them? Pure capitalism wont work and pure socialism wont either. We need to define the balance of each we want our government to observe.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  14. Ronney Regan

    Are you out of your mind ...Why do Liberal like yourself suggest crap like that...The idea of letting a bunch of Social Media Morons rewrite one of the greatest documents of all time is insane....I cannot wait until the Liberals and democrats are out of power and we begin to get our country back...I have an idea why don't we give you say Northern California and you can get let a bunch of Twits to write your constitution and then you can stick it up your Liberal Ass and live happily ever after in your utopia...We will win our country back and people like you will crawl back into your holes...Go to Hell...Rick Perry in 2012 lets hope.....

    June 20, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  15. Brad

    Why change the Constitution? The document is perfect as it is. The Bill of Rights assures Liberty for all, so what is the problem? Maybe the problem is that the Constitution is a wild inconvenience for the powers that be. It causes problems for presidents who want to override Congress. And the powers of the Congress, prescribed in the Constitution, are ignored by the presidency. If anything, it's the executive branch that must be brought to heel and subjugated to the Congress.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  16. larry

    3 changes huh?
    1. legalize slavery again
    2. put a bounty on illegal aliens
    3. mandatory death sentence for being caught with pot or illegal drugs
    a perfect constitution

    June 20, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Reply
    • Well...

      Slavery is legalized in some ways.. and its the illegals who work for very low wages in the worst of conditions who are enslaved.
      But... you are stupid because you want to legalize slavery now... and a black man is running the country.. who do you think the slaves will be this time around?

      June 20, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  17. Kevin

    This has got to be one of the most idiotic postings ever submitted by a professional journalist and selected for publication by a recognized news site. A second Constitutional Convention brought to you by American Idol! What could be better for American democracy? As was already pointed out you clearly do not understand anything about the Great Compromise and its importance to the very core of our federal republican (not the party) system. You also don't understand much about the electoral college (which is admittedly far from perfect, but what system is?) or the 2000 election to claim that the country was "paralyzed". You obviously dislike the outcome of the race for reasons probably associated with your own political bias. But the truth of the matter is that the judicial system handled those extraordinary events quite well, and a conclusion to an election decided by a few hundred votes was established in only a few weeks. Stick to foreign policy analysis before you embarrass yourself further, Mr. Zakaria

    June 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
    • Daniel

      Germany is a federal republic it has a parliament. get you're definitions right

      June 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Reply
      • Daniel

        and that parliament has a party system with proportional representation.

        June 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  18. KlondikeJack

    Goodness gracious great balls of fire! Letting those proponents of puerile posturing (the "Social Media") have anything to do with re-writing the constitution curdles my blood. Zakaria has clearly been smoking or sipping the wrong juice, to even suggest such a thing. Next it will be public mooning!

    June 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  19. Patricksday

    We need to do away with the electoral college, and let all votes count. And we need to keep the CORPORATIONS out of the Consitution. The Beast that has taken on a monsterous life of its own, that even the Supreme Court has given rights too over humanity.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  20. Brian Cekoric

    I would very much welcome such a proposal. Sadly, I would not have much hope for the finished product given the shortage of critical thinking skills within the US population.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      You are bang on. The constitution and most of the laws are pretty darn good. The main problem with this country is the people. This is still very much a racist country and above all else a very selfish country as a whole.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  21. wishing

    The Constitution is not a shopping list. It shouldn't be changed everytime some pet issue gets people 'motivated'. It should be amended, from time to time, as necessary and with difficulty.

    Look at how politicized Scotus has become. Remember how the GOP tried to politicize the entire Justicee Department. We need a document and set of rules that stand the test of time and are difficult to change.

    Congress, Scotus and the President would do well to reduce the amount of radical changes that are taking place with each swing of the political pendulum. Yes, we need change. It should take place gradually, (unless there is a national emergency.)

    June 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  22. Truthwillsetyoufree

    I have serious reservations about the people in charge nowadays the the parties involved could make rational choices to make constitution changes. The integrity of our current parties is questionable at best. I vote, NO!!! people are corrupt and inept right now.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  23. Michele Goinsalvos

    Good Lord!! Our Constitution is fine... and when changes are needed, that's where our Bill of Rights comes into play. I'm not a brainiac about our government but one thing I do know, NON Americans need to mind their business and let us mind ours!

    June 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  24. Bob Johnson

    Pulease. First Fareed Zakaria suggests that America is behind the times in his pieces and books, now he espouses the changing of the Constitution because if Iceland can do it, America can do it. He actually compares the age of Icelands Constitution to America's suggesting that change is good for the country.

    This is unreal. FZ also suggests that America employ social media to achieve these changes. What pray tell was wrong with the 2000 election. While I abhor its result I applaud its process. Why does FZ not know the difference between the House and the Senate? What is Fareed Zakaria trying to change?

    Is he a plant who has achieved renown, and now forments? Maybe.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  25. Mark McKennon

    I could think of some worthy and uncontroversial additions to the Constitution. Among them, no corporate money in any elections. Equal pay for equal work. And the option to establish national referendums on pressing issues shared by nearly all the states–guns, nuclear power, energy, etc.–rather than a state by state resolution. But we would also see a dog fight over social issues. Inevitably, conservative states would seek repeal of Roe v. Wade and to ban abortion in all circumstances. Similarly, there would be a movement to establish the U.S. as a Christian nation, despite the very clear wording of that portion of the First Amendment that addresses it. And many parties wish to ban the Fed, the IRS and other agencies they feel to be intrusive.

    Revising, updating or amending the Constitution would almost require a Constitution in itself to establish rules and priorities for that alteration. Political and religious conservatives would seek hegemony of the document along the lines of their ideology; progressives would take a more open, humanist, secular and inclusive view. With all the dust that such a 21st Century Constitution Convention could raise, perhaps its almost better to leave the masterful but aging original as it is.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  26. Mr. Spicolli

    Democracy is great, but doesn't this defeat the purpose of writing a constitution in the first place? Democracy ties into it because the people voted to change their constitution in the article above. It may be for the better of their constitution, but I suppose I'm a little arrogant since our four father's here in the U.S. were f'n genius!

    June 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  27. KBurns

    The United States Constitution is a creation of compromise. The emerging northern industrial colonies and the southern slave holding colonies had to compromise in order to secure their economic interests, while forging a political document of self-determination. In today's political climate circa:2011.. revision of the United States Constitution would mean an end of the American Republic. Gridlock and total political gamesmanship would ensue ! The Founding Fathers were politically astute in that they probably saw into the future, and wrote procedures mechanisms for amendments.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  28. Mike

    It is comical how some members of congress keep a copy in there top pocket. It is as you say the greatest document regarding the founding of a republic ever written. But times have changed from the way we dress to the way provide for our family's. Sure we no longer own slaves nor do we cure sickness in the same archaic fashion. So to carry the document as the do still referring to it as gospel in it original form is ridiculous. Just as we have amended it to end slavery. We should amend it to fix modern problems for the modern society we have become. I think it is admirable to carry the constitution as founding document that speaks to the historical significance of the founding of United States of America. That is what it is history. To say that it speaks to our core values is to say slavery is part of our core values. The document should grow like our great nation has grown. We are the greatest county on earth in the history of mankind.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  29. Steve

    You, and only you, can prevent Obamunism.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  30. Ryan

    A revised Constitution should outlaw "corporate personhood" and strip transnational corporations of the power they now have that the original Constitution never endowed to them – in particular the right to buy elections via the Citizens United ruling should be permanently banned as it undermines the legitimacy of our entire government.

    June 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Reply
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