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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

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

soundoff (2,350 Responses)
  1. CT

    The Electoral College has been under fire for years. It's a silly system, and if you think about it voter turnout could improve by eliminating it. Why would a Democrat from Texas, lets say, want to vote when the district will be voting republican? Either eliminate presidential term limits or impose congressional limits, I'm for the latter.
    And as long as we're never asking congress for a declaration of war, may as well clean that one up too.

    But as many have stated, if the Constitution were to be revised, our idiot representatives would want it revised based on what their part wants, not what's best for the nation.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Reply
    • outawork

      1 term for everyone.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  2. stonedwhitetrash

    The United states of America is not a direct democracy. The founders of our constitution believed that the average person was not literate enough to directly elect a president therefore we have the electoral college. What was true then still stands.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  3. outawork

    The first thing that needs to be in it would be that government can't spend anymore than it take in.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  4. scott

    Everyone who has read this article has became dumber, I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul

    June 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Reply
    • betterthanjosh

      take your points and your piece of crap god too

      June 20, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  5. Dale

    Let me be very clear here, the U.S. Constitution is the greatest expressions of liberty and law in human history; it has survived as the law of the land for 222 years. The U.S. Constitution’s greatness lies in its core principle.
    Mr. Zakaria he is showing his true colors !!

    June 20, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Reply
    • betterthanjosh

      yes. his colors are red white and blue, yours are just white, you invader

      June 20, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Reply
  6. David D.

    1. Term Limits: No member of the House or Senate shall stand for re-election more than once.

    2. Campaign Finance: Only individual citizens may contribute to campaigns, limited to $500 adjusted for inflation.

    3. Defense spending shall remain at or below 3% GDP or 20% of federal tax collections, whichever is lower, except where war has been declared by Congress.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Your third point is awesome. 20% of the GDP is (according to CIA World Factbook; USA (2010 figures)): $14.66 Trillion. Let's do the math:

      1.466e+13 * .20 = 2.932e+12 (2,932,000,000,000). That's trillion. 20% is extremely generous of you, but may not be necessary.

      Total revenue: $2.092 Trillion (with a T). 2% would assume:

      2e+12 * .02 = $40 Billion. The US spent more than that on Libya, alone.

      I like your thoughts, but working with these figures may get a little difficult when it's actually time to do something. And "whichever is less" is always 2% of the budget.

      June 20, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Ok, I switched the math all up. That's the problem with not being able to see the post while I'm typing. I see where you're going with this. It looks good on paper, but so does communism.

      June 20, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
      • betterthanjosh

        yes, socialism is what we need and are after, so move on

        June 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  7. DC

    Interesting timing – right after NBC edits the Pledge of Allegiance............Just before the U.S. Open, at the beginning of the telecast, NBC aired a patriotic montage featuring video clips of national monuments and soldiers raising an American flag, cut around a group of school-aged children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Only during the pledge, the phrases "under God" and "indivisible" were edited out, twice. The piece was supposed to play up the whole patriotism theme with the golf course hosting our national championship so close to our nation's capital and all.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  8. gregory erg

    Is this a trial balloon? To cover unconstitutional actions of administration and blame the constitution of being out of date? What other purpose may this article have? Any ideas on what brought an attack on the Constitution by "progressives"?

    June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  9. Chris

    How about a revisit of F.D.R's 1944 second bill of rights?

    June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • gregory erg

      Hmm. It parallels 1936 Soviet Constitution (see Wiki) which guaranteed to the Soviet citizens the right to work, rest and leisure, health protection, care in old age and sickness, housing, education, and cultural benefits. We know how it ended and how many millions died as a result. Low average life expectancy (a good chance to be shot for disagreeing with government), declining population, etc.

      This is exactly the problem with current administration: they think they can do better with the same failed ideas.

      June 20, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Reply
      • betterthanjosh

        get your lame out of the way and i'll show you, you capitalist

        June 20, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  10. Grandpa RD

    What the hell does it matter what we write into a possibly revised constitution? It's just going to be modified into whatever the Supreme Court is going to want it to say anyway. For example, I voted in California FOR Proposition 187, the one about illegal immigration, and it passed into law. The bloody Supreme Idiots struck it down, saying "it's unconstitutional."
    WTF??? I thought the PEOPLE ran what was law or not, not a handful of judges who tell We the PEOPLE what we can do and can't. To me, it's ALL BS anyway! What does it matter who or WHAT the people vote for anymore?
    I now understand the level of voter apathy that has infested "our" country! What's the use in voting at all???

    June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • MadJerry

      @ GrandpaRG – "The bloody Supreme Idiots struck it down, saying "it's unconstitutional."
      WTF??? I thought the PEOPLE ran what was law or not, not a handful of judges who tell We the PEOPLE what we can do and can't."

      This is where you misunderstand the structure of the federal system. It is a constitutional republic, wherein the majority cannot vote away the rights of a minority where such a law would violate the rights granted that minority under the constitution. If you could do that then all majorities would seek only to shore up their own advantaged position. Go read the opinion, they don't just arbitrarily vote a certain way to piss you off.

      June 20, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  11. Victor Lazlo

    There is a very good reason smaller states have the same number of Senators as large ones and the reason has been the same from the beginning: to prevent the large states from running roughshod over the smaller ones. Congress is where the "majority rule" pluses and minuses are viewable in plain sight and a good reminder why a pure democracy (instead of a representative one) is a bad idea, especially for anyone not in the majority.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  12. Mike

    The Constitution of the United States is a timeless, living document, which creates not only the foundation of the American way of life, but an example for the rest of the world that our democratic form of government works: by the people and for the people.

    In fact it is possible to change the constitution, but extremely difficult to do so. Three-fourths of the states have to ratify any amendments to the constitution, all with equal voice (regardless of the population of the state). Amendments are the only way this document has ever and will ever change, period. "Starting from scratch" with a living document will only happen if the country is once again at civil war. While there should be amendments to restore state's powers, we should keep in mind that six amendments were passed in congress but have yet to be ratified.

    As a born American, it's offensive to the very fibers of American society for someone who migrated to the United States (regardless of origin) to propose that we change the one thing that makes America–America. Immigrants should admire the ways of the country they have joined, or return home and try to change theirs.

    Don't get me wrong: I'm a father of a dual-citizen and a husband of a legal immigrant. I have all-due respect for those who love our country as much as I do and move their entire world to join it. Please, Mr. Zakaria, respect those born on these lands and our history (good and bad).

    June 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
    • nick2

      Why do I get the feeling that there is a huge disconnect between your feelings and reality ?

      June 20, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  13. GonzoG

    NO! NO! NO!

    While it is true, The Constitution as a whole has flaws, some that have been fixed by amendment, some that are artifacts of the time they were written, NO! Do NOT REWRITE THE CONSTITUTION!

    Not because of the flaws that exist, but because of the Americans who would direct its content. Either, we would have a document with hundreds of wherefores, why fors, and except fors, or we would end up with a document that had markedly LESS freedoms than we currently enjoy.

    Mostly, I feel a LARGE and VOCAL block of well intentioned, but highly meddlesome people would CURTAIL the INDIVIDUAL LIBERTIES I currently hold dear.



    June 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  14. Alex

    Oh, by the way, Sharia law has even been longer around than the constitution, its rules are even more outdated, and its followers are even more fervent than you guys about not changing it.

    Face it guys, there is no more inherently unclean meat, and there are no more militias (outside of Montana). The world is a different place now.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  15. MadJerry

    Wow this discussion has exploded with vitriol and ill thought out proposals that lack a fundamental understanding, in addition to a few good suggestions. I will instead focus on some things I would like to see changed that don't directly affect substantive rights in one way or another...

    Structural Changes:
    – Min-Max levels for the number of constituents per representative (Following Zakaria's numbers if you kept the same ratio you should have 4,875 reps total, but I would be willing to stipulate to 1,000 due to improvements in roads and communications. This was actually proposed as the second of twelve amendments in the Bill of Rights but was never ratified)
    – Return of election of senators to state legislatures
    – Requiring elected officials to hand over non-subsistence assets to a blind trust so they can't make policy choices based on their E-Trade Account Balance.
    – Clearer rules on conflicts of interest and recusal of representatives voting on laws that directly benefit their interests.
    – Abolition of personal income tax, let the US Gov't get its money directly from states...

    Practice Changes:
    – Capaign Contributions from non-corporeal persons commercial speech and not political speech (which allows them to be regulated by the federal government instead of protected by the highest standards of the first amendment)
    – Waaaaaaay more use of the amendment process (I am looking at you "Substantive Due Process". Contraceptive, reproductive, and marriage rights are not mentioned anywhere, but they could be)
    Less running of activist groups (children) to the federal government (Parent) for laws to prevent another group (sibling) from doing something that bothers them (breaking its toys). Try working in YOUR state and not telling people who live in others how to run their business.
    – The federal government stop regulating everything under the sun through the commerce clause.
    – The Supreme Court actually acknowledging the 10th Amendment
    – Reversion to people saying "The United States ARE..." instead of "The United States IS"

    That is just to start for me.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  16. hustlnflo

    Be careful what you wish for.
    The Republicans wrote a new Iraqi Constitution after Saddam was overthrown. It included clauses that outlawed unions and allowed foreign oil companies to operate in Iraq without any oversight from the Iraqi government. That's the Constitution we would get if Sarah Palin or John Boner was in charge of the rewrite.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  17. madboots

    Anyone else get a virus warning when they click this article? Anyways, our constitution is pretty much just a worthless piece of paper now that we let our government take away most of our rights in the guise of our safety from the terrorists

    June 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  18. Kris

    For one thing, this is a horrible idea, because all the partisan internet morons will group together with the other partisan internet morons and effectively turn this country either into a Christian theocracy or a Utopian society, depending on which side can get more partisan internet morons.

    But personally, I would recommend the following:

    1: End the two-party system and the Electoral College and go towards something like an Israeli or Polish list system.
    2: Make the Finnish education system the official model for the United States.
    3: Put an end to the "Moral police." Legalize and regulate prostitution, sports betting, and low-level drugs. Just like that, the debt would be virtually cut in half.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  19. Ed

    BY the way, by stating "Should we update the constitution" implies it has never been updated. This is completely wrong. It has been and will continue to be, in the manner in which the Constitution allows. If you like another countries Constitution/Rule of Law, move there. Until then, do NOT denigrate the system that allowed you to have the most liberties of any country on the planet. Oh, and stop watching television, period.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  20. Steve

    I think that we should create a strong dollar
    that is backed by some physical asset ( it doesn't have to be silver or gold or copper.)
    The reason why it is important for a strong dollar backed by some physical asset is that the United States would get a good credit rating, the US would be trusted by other countries to have a strong and sound financial system, and that it would guarantee the citizens of the US that we have a strong dollar that has a high purchasing power. The Constitution states that only silver and gold coin should be a legal tender in payment of debts. However, the United States in 1787 only had four million people in it, which is one percent of today's population, ( which is something like 310 million people.) Therefore, we as a country has grown a lot economically since 1787, therefore we have paper money in order to make trade a lot easier. This doesn't mean that we can't circulate our paper dollars without the backing of some physical asset. To summarize up my comment, I think we should have an amendment made to the Constitution that makes sure that the government keeps the dollar strong, and that the amendment should also state that it should be by law that we as a nation being a global reserve currency should keep our dollar backed by some physical asset to guarantee foreign nations and the citizens of the United States that we have a currency that is strong and ringing true here in the US and in other parts of the world.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  21. Jaeger

    Three Potential Amendments ?

    1. Repell the 13th Amendment, which abolshed slavery
    2. Repell the 14th Amendment, protecting citizenship to everyone born in the United States
    3. Amend the constitution such that marriage is defined strictly between a Man and a Woman.

    What don't think those? Well neither do I. But those are three clear examples of the kind of constitutional amendments that could be achieved in a nations where simple majority rule was the rule of law.

    Don't mess with the Constitution.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
    • MadJerry

      Well put I think

      June 20, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  22. nana1943

    The Contitution has worked for over 200 years. Old Saying: IF IT WORKS, DON'T FIX IT!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  23. Craig

    Here are a list of things that need to be changed in the constitution.

    1) dummy proof all the amendments to make them more definitive and precise to prevent the gov't from finding "loopholes" that essentially let them ignore rights when it suits them. The entire Bill of Rights needs this but the prime example of a completely ignored amendment is the 10th. If this amendment was enforced then we wouldn't have an enormous federal gov't.

    2) balanced budget amendment

    3) term limits on congress and the supreme court

    4) removal of corporate funding for elections

    5) money caps on election campaigns

    6) federal gov't being limited to national protection/enforcement of constitution/infrastructure

    7) abolishment of political parties

    June 20, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
    • MadJerry

      2) balanced budget amendment – Good Idea, I like this one too

      3) term limits on congress and the supreme court – I Don't see why you think this is needed. What is it that you want this to correct in the current system?

      June 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Reply
      • Craig

        I would expect term limits to limit our exposure to the SAME morons indefinitely. It's inevitable that new dumb@sses will get elected...but it is common sense that the longer someone is exposed to large amounts of power the more likely they are to become corrupt and/or abuse that power. I understand that the way it works now is that they have to be re-elected so in theory of people wanted them gone all they'd have to do is vote someone else in but with our corrupt election format now with corporate and special interest group funding once a lackey is in place it's nearly impossible to replace them.

        June 20, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  24. xnay

    All this guy has done is prove he never took a civic s course. (In this country anyway)

    But if Iceland is doing it .......

    June 20, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
    • RJ

      Hes saying if other countries are considering it why not us? The Constitution is extremely outdated lets grow up and fix the things we know are broken

      June 20, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  25. Dave

    Feel free. Amendments are allowed; knock yourself out.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Reply
  26. Keith

    The founders were smart, secular intellectuals and philosophers. I wouldn't trust any of our current leaders to draft a reasonable, fair constitution.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Reply
  27. Bob Scheel

    The existing system was designed to balance the needs of very different states. Perhaps the biggest problem with government today is that our policiticans spend most of the their time in Washington D.C. An amendment to require that they can only be in Washington for 2 weeks twice a year and must spend the balance of their time in their home districts would correct a lot of problems.

    Lobbyists would be hard put upon to have more influence then local residents/business owners.
    Corruption and back room deals would be tougher because long distance communications could always be tapped or subject to freedom of information laws.
    Lawmakers would remain true to their roots and would be more in touch with their district/state's needs.
    Debates and committee meetings could be done by teleconference. (Even voting could.)

    Term limits would be good as well.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  28. D Stanton

    I believe that most of our issues lie in the fact that our government, as a whole, encumbers itself when making policy and decisions because the "rule of the majority, restrained by the minority" nature of our bicameral legislature current separation of powers scheme. I'm certainly not suggesting that we do away with these structures, only tweak them a bit. I truly believe one model would be the British system. Without being too detailed, when a party gets elected into the majority (by the voters!) they have the opportunity to pass their agenda! What a concept! Some folks are going to say, "Well what if their agenda doesn't work?" Guess what, they can call for elections and elect another party into power. Amazing! It makes a MP or Minister much more accountable to the public and more often. Secondly, in the 1950s, we amended campaign finance laws to read that parties can only contribute so much to a certain candidate. It still costs money to get elected, campaigns are extremely expensive. In the system we had before these reforms, a candidate campaigned in their district, state, country, etc and built a following. They would seek the nomination of their party and then they were able to kiss babies and shake hands. Following these reforms, we forced politicians to find other sources of money to fund campaigns, in stepped corporate American interests. There's no doubt that business being involved in politics was nothing new before these laws were passed, but there's also no doubt that the American people are smarter and more educated than they've ever been. They know that politicians must also craft policy that will get them the funds they need to get reelected. This single issue has made the parties more disparate within their own caucuses. If a political contributor was referred to the local or national party leader to discuss their advocacy of their important issue, the politician was free to think about policy making vice fundraising constantly and the party was MUCH more unified in the process because the candidate would be virtually required to advocate the party's platform or "go it alone" to get elected. Sure, even within that construct, there will be outliers. But you wouldn't have a single Senator (a la Joe Lieberman) wasting everybody's time threatening a filibuster and stalling crucial health care reform. Just one example among many.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  29. mrhapiguy

    I like our constitution just the way it is, thank you very much. The checks and balances are simply genius, and still completely effective.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • RJ

      we can keep that...just maybe get rid of some crappy stuff along the way

      June 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  30. Norm

    "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."


    June 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Reply
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