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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

    We couldn't do this because in our current political climate we would end up with the Articles of Confederation II or a dictatorship thinly disguised as a republic. It would destroy the nation. I would argue for all its imperfections the current constitution is a better outcome.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  2. Jack Teagarden

    I don't think the relatively recent and superficial interest in the Constitution exhibited by the more rabid "conservatives on the street" is a very good starting point for a major revision or overhaul of the US Constitution.

    The Constitution has been horribly stretched over time, no question, from the result-oriented civil rights cases relying on the Commerce Clause as their justification, to the mystical "right to privacy" articulated in "Roe v. Wade;" it is hard to have a whole lot of sympathy for the reasoning behind these cases, even if you like the results.

    Whipping up the rabble and making them believe they somehow have some deep understanding of a document which has been intepreted for over 200 years, however, is highly dangerous, and preventing decisions made by the rabble in times of high passion is among the more important safeguards intentionally incorporated into the document in the first place.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • Merkin

      True enough that the Commerce Clause was mangled beyond recognition, though I would argue that the Tenth Amendment, reserving rights ultimately to The People, trumps states' rights. As for the "right to privacy", I think the First, Second, Fourth, and Tenth Amendments can easily be construed as implicitly conveying a "right to privacy".

      June 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  3. Liberty

    The US constitution is outdated. It is a 200+ year old document that was initially meant to join 13 colonies together to create a bulwark against the overwhelming size and power of Britain. In that small room only 39 people signed a document that is now meant to govern a country that is home to four million. How can we rationally believe that a document created centuries ago could form the basis of our government now?

    While the ideals of the document are the foundation of our idealistic, and core values, the details housed in the document should be revised. There is no reason for us to rely on an electoral college when the internet allows us to communicate internationally. The Electoral College was originally created to counteract the "common man" the person that could not gather all the pertinent information required to vote, with our information resources no person is burdened with the inability to learn about the votin measures. As a democracy, we expect to elect leaders to represent us, but without our individual votes counting towards the election why vote?

    Pertaining to Mr. House's comments regarding the Senate, I believe that Zakaria was merely showing a problem regarding the cumulative representation of the states, not attacking the reasoning behind the document. We must beleive that the politicians and the government will follow the laws that govern the land, otherwise it is our duty to work to change the system. Those that beleive that the constitution is not being followed in it's current incarnation should be MORE adamant for it's restructuring. They should be part of the group that pushes change through, not ignoring the problem. I agree that we are seeing great incongruities regarding our constitution and our politicians, but it is our right, and duty to bring those problems to light.

    That's just how I see it.

    Liberty

    June 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  4. wwwwwww

    Balanced budget amendment, term limits on the House and Senate.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  5. Mark H

    Proposed additions to any USA constitution:

    1. No member of Congress, or any Federal employee, shall receive any health care benefit or retirement different from those benefits available to ordinary citizens under any Federal Health Care Program or Federal Retirement Program.

    2. The Federal government shall prepare and implement a 1 year program of study ("Program") to be completed by all candidates for President and Vice-President before such persons may file papers to run for such office.

    3. Such Program shall includes courses on modern geography, the identity of all countries in the world, their current 3 top leaders, social customs, religious customs, and economic and military strengths and weaknesses.

    4. No person may serve more than one term as President. However, to allow said President enough time to "get something done", said term shall be for (choose either 6 or 8 years). Point: Stop the constant campaigning. You were hired to do a job, not be paid to campaign. Enough already! Additiona benefit: You can do what is best for the country, even if your major supporters threaten not to support you for re-election, because there is no re-election.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  6. Amazed333

    Imagine that. A liberal on CNN wanting to scrap the constitution..

    June 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  7. non_grata

    1. A balanced budget – only overruled by 3/4 (in Congress) vote in cases of emergency
    2. A national primary held 2 months before the general election (and only one election per year)[on a Sunday]
    3. Election funds must come from within the voting district and only from citizens, no corporations (limit $1,000?)
    4 A national referendum(s) can only be revisited every 50 years (used when congress is at impass

    June 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  8. bulletslinger

    Yes, the Constitution needs updating. We need to address term limits, a longer presidential term to get out of this cycle of endless campaigning and clauses to address campaign financing and the role of lobbyists. It is a fantasy that this document is holier than all, but the political capital to address these issues will be highly controversial. We are a young nation, wrapped up in symbology and ideology and the constitution is weaved into that cultural fabric. As long as our citizens remain isolationist in their view of world history and geopolitics, we will revere our founding fathers as omniscient and our constitution as untouchable. There are other great political and governmental ideas all across this earth.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  9. thegadfly

    Why do we have to dump the current US Constitution to write a new one? There's nothing keeping anyone from crowd-sourcing a SUGGESTION. How about 20 or 30 different independent organizations, competing to assemble the best complete, hypothetical US Constitution? Then pick one, or don't. A no-obligation exercise might yield valuable, or at least interesting results. Ready? Go.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  10. Jim S

    This is just so wrong on so many levels. If you want to be European, go to Europe! We are a Federation, not a true democracy. Do away with States rights and you have one powerful central government that doesn't give a crap about 70% of the country catering instead to Chicago, NYC and LA and other very large urban areas. You ruin the fabric of what it is to be American. I think we should redefine what it is to be a journalist!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  11. Franchise

    First, this article is only meant to stir up debate and make people think. By Zakaria's points and suggestions, he has accomplished this goal.

    The people who discredit Zakaria for thinking his suggestions are out-of-this world, insane, ignorant, what-have-you, need to realize his suggestions not serious, just suggestions to stir debate.

    Don't discredit him, one because he's smarter than us (he's a Dr., duh), or downgrade him for drawing an article that is supposed to get people to think. Be open-minded, don't attack. You're better than that.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
    • Elbert

      You're a jackass. How's that for open-minded?

      June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • tepeters

      You are correct. Your other reply here says it all

      June 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  12. Brian Hoxie

    I would like to note that those complaining about the electoral college and apportionment of votes, how those votes are allocated (winner take all or proportional) are not dictated in the Constitution but instead by state law. Maine and Nebraska are two states that award votes by the majority vote won in each congressional district. So appealing to your states would be the best way to change this voting structure instead of amending the Constitution.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  13. jokesallthejokes

    You are all so funny! Keep the jokes coming!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  14. David

    Blaqb0x

    Now that corporations are nearly considered citizens they can re-write the constitution for the rest of us.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:23 pm >>>>>thanks for that me thinks the ruling that corporations are people was a direct attack on the constitution...wouldnt the corporations just love to be able to do that!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  15. Eric Cartman

    "... and every Tuesday should be free ice cream day."

    June 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  16. Splovengates

    NEVER!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  17. Elbert

    Here are my 3 suggested amendments:

    1. Ban anyone with the name Zakaria from polluting the country with useless, moronic ideas.
    2. Turn CNN over to the Onion, which actually does a better job of reporting the news.
    3. Force liberals and socialists to actually study history.

    Whaddya think?

    June 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • Simon

      You couldn't actually implement #3 since the conservatives have underfunded the schools to the point they don't really teach history anymore. Where it is still on the curriculum it has been edited heavily to exclude things that may show white Americans in a bad light.

      June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
      • Elbert

        Yes, it all has to do with mo' money. Study recent history, you liberal, and you'll see that as funding for education has gone up over the past few decades (per liberal initiatives) test scores have proportionally decreased.

        June 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
      • Joe

        Or they don't have money left because teachers would rather pay less into their pensions than for little Johnny and Susie to have a book to read

        June 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  18. Rob

    There is a process to change it by amendment. I don't trust Washington to correctly spend my tax dollars, much less scrap the constitution and come up with a new one. I can only think of one currently person that even comes close to the foresight needed to come up with anything close to the current constitution.
    I would be Ok with removing the Electoral College, no corp. campaign donations, Human rights start at conception (end the debate right there), make civil unions between any two adults and marriage left up to the church.

    I agree with the first post. The article itself shows Zakaria's lake of knowledge on the constitution and explains many previous positions.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  19. NorCalMojo

    Nice expert, CNN.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  20. whatwhatwhatyo

    im more concerned about what our gov would do if we gave them a chance to redo the constitution. greed, corruption, votes for favors, and the other trash elected into office is what hurts our country.... not the current constitution.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  21. gregory erg

    "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"

    Scary to think that a person with a program on TV does not know that this was precisely the intention. Congress has a proportional representation. The balance of power was the goal by giving two seats to each state in order to assure equality between states.

    "Progressives" these days want a single, centralized state (something like Soviet Union). Just read Nicholas Kristof's article of a couple days ago where he wants US to be run in a military style. And here goes another one: this one thinks he can write a better constitution. Failed experiences of other countries which have gone in the awful direction of centralization do not sound an alarm in "progressive" heads.

    What a miserable bunch! Now they want a Borg Collective from Star Treck!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  22. John

    I would most fervently support an amendment limiting corporate freedom of speech. This would include campaign contributions and advertisements.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  23. Justin Bend

    1) Abolish the electoral college
    2) Proportional representation in the congress
    3) Outlaw gerrymandering
    4) Publicly funded election campaigns only – no private funds
    5) Same day registration – same day vote
    6) Open primaries, as a national mandate
    7) Guaranteed Quality Health Care
    8) The allowance of any couple or group of consenting adults, regardless of gender, to enter into a social compact in the form of a civil union
    9) National Elections are National Holidays
    10) The US military cannot be made to take any action of force without a formal declaration of war by the congress

    I could go on, but these ten are a really good start to move the United States toward democratization.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • Justin Bend

      HA! Mistaken emoticon typo!

      June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  24. Ed B

    1. Eliminate electoral college . Use popular vote .
    2. Enact term limits on all public offices.
    3. Enact balanced budget for Federal government .

    June 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • Justin Bend

      hear, hear!

      June 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Reply
    • oldgulph

      To abolish the Electoral College would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population.

      The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

      The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College. It assures that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election, as in virtually every other election in the country.

      Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • kirk

        STUPID IDEA GO BACK TO SCHOOL MORON the whole reason for it and the senate was for state rights

        June 21, 2011 at 3:35 am |
      • oldgulph

        It is the exclusive power of each state to change how they award their electoral votes.

        The U.S. Constitution says is "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the states over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

        States have the responsibility to make their voters relevant in every presidential election.

        Under the current system, which is not what the Founders used, 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections. .

        Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

        June 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  25. Matthew Carr

    I'm glad you asked this, Mr. Fareed, because, since taking AP US History this year, I've been thinking a lot about this. I've come to a few conclusions.

    1. Either restrict the amount of money that can be donated by corporations to campaigns or repeal the 17th amendment to attempt to insulate senators from monetary influences.

    2. Elect presidents for 8 years and only one term to, again, insulate them from popular pressure so that the first term is not focused on winning the second term. Elect congressmen for 3 years.

    3. Maintain independent treasury but appointments are made by a council of economists chosen by the president and confirmed by the senate.

    4. Establish finally the fact that the constitution is not meant to be interpreted literally as it was written vaguely by the framers who, amongst themselves, often disagreed on its meaning.

    5. Elect senators based on population, we are a nation, Abraham Lincoln stopped referring to the US as a union through the Civil War because, that is not what we are. We are more a nation than a union. Besides, Madison, the true architect of the Constitution, in many ways, supported this, and I believe he was right in this regard.

    Basically, what I believe this would do is allow our electors to balance out the "mob" rule of democracy to make the tough decisions or unpopular ones, like another stimulus would have been unpopular, but it would have been the right choice. But what also matters is the "virtue" as many of our ancestors put it, of the republic. Simply put, it doesn't work to be an ideologue, when the facts change, so must we. To believe that the constitution should not be amended is to live in a land where the time doesn't change, our ancestors were clairvoyant savants and humans are rational, a fairy land.

    I hope some of these ideas, put forward by others and myself, are taken into consideration by the public and our elected officials, the public needs to overcome its Constitution worshipping behavior and realize that a document by humans is only as perfect as its writers, which is hardly perfect at all.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • Jennifer

      Agree 100%

      June 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      I bet I can guess the political ideology of your AP teacher. Were you taught these things or did you actually learn them yourself. My proof to these accusations....you only want to limit "corporate" money to political campaigns....how about also limiting "union" donations?

      June 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • tepeters

      Thoughtful ideas worthy of discussion. yuo seem to have a greater grasp of history than many of the comments .

      June 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  26. onoyoudint

    The electoral college was established to give respresentation to less populous areas of the country. Large metropolitan areas with higher populations have different (sometimes contrary) interests than the heartland of America. The founding fathers recognized this. This is one benefit of the electoral college. New York and Los Angeles are incapable of running the country.

    This idea of "updating" the constitution by Zakaria is just an effort to desensitize Americans. It will be done. It will be done. Its just a matter of time. The first time it was signed by noble men like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. The next time it will be the Bush family, the Clintons, Obama, Rumsfeld and other Washington crooks.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • oldgulph

      Anyone concerned about the relative power of big states and small states should realize that the current system shifts power from voters in the small and medium-small states to voters in a handful of big states.

      Under National Popular Vote, when every vote counts equally, successful candidates will find a middle ground of policies appealing to the wide mainstream of America. Instead of playing mostly to local concerns in Ohio and Florida, candidates finally would have to form broader platforms for broad national support. It would no longer matter who won a state.

      Now political clout comes from being a battleground state.

      Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are almost invariably non-competitive, and ignored, in presidential elections. Six regularly vote Republican (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota), and six regularly vote Democratic (Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC) in presidential elections.

      Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska - 70%, DC - 76%, Delaware –75%, Idaho – 77%, Maine - 77%, Montana – 72%, Nebraska - 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada - 72%, New Mexico - 76%, Oklahoma – 81%, Rhode Island - 74%, South Dakota – 71%, Utah – 70%, Vermont - 75%, and West Virginia – 81%, and Wyoming – 69%.

      Nine state legislative chambers in the lowest population states have passed the National Popular Vote bill. It has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Vermont.

      The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 19% of the population of the United States. A "big city" only campaign would not win.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  27. Rindert

    We have probably evolved enough to get a true democracy and get rid of the electoral college. Also the way the senate is put together should change. Instead of having 2 senators per state , let's just nation wide elect 100 senators irrespective of where they come from.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • oldgulph

      The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

      The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College. It assures that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election, as in virtually every other election in the country.

      Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn't be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

      June 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  28. Alfred Nye Jr

    Of course we need to revise our constitution. But given that for most of the past 200 years we have lived, not with a Jeffersonian democracy or democratic republic, but with a Hamiltonian plutocracy–the richest among us run our government, not the people–I pessimistically think that there is little or no chance of any meaningful changes occurring until after the environmentally-based economic collapse now well under way proceeds much further. It seems most likely that the plutocrats in control will insist on letting nature force the needed changes on us rather than to make those badly needed changes in a more rational, less deadly way.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • bulletslinger

      well said

      June 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  29. Thomas

    You lack a basic understanding of American history so dont go and say that we need to revise our consitution just because Iceland is doing it. This just another example of poeple who think more power in less hands is good for America, sounds alot like Obama. It doesnt work the people vocies would not be heard but I guess that what they want to accomplish. Dorwning out the smaller popualation states influence and rights so they can get tampled so the bigger states can dictate what is going to happen. It goes against the very thing this country was first built on "No taxation without repersentation"

    June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  30. Mark

    Provide a nationwide, non-partisan standard for the mapping of congressional districts. Ridiculously gerrymandered districts are an insult to all voters. I realize that the party in power changes based on election, but no party should be able to slice up districts to essentially support themselves, not the voters.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
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