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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

    Re: Is it time to update the U.S. Constitution?, Fareed Zakaria, June 29, 2011.

    It is interesting to see how few of the comments actually proposed any changes or tweaks to the
    Constitution and how many were just bigoted rants or childish name-calling. Anyway, here are
    my suggestions for consideration, with some borrowed from other posts.
    1. Establish a very limited popular initiative process for enacting certain types of laws, even over
    the objections of Congress. Such laws would be those that govern the ethics, behavior,
    procedures, and compensation of elected federal officials. A super-majority (say, 2/3 or 3/4) of
    the voters should be required for passage. In addition, require that any increase in pay or
    benefits for legislators that is proposed by legislators must be passed by a majority of the voters
    in the next national election. (I harbor no illusions about the possibility of such an amendment
    ever being passed.)

    2. Term limits on the order of 10 to 12 years for elected federal office holders – possibly with an
    exception for candidates who get more than 65% of the votes.

    3. Mandatory prison sentences for legislators who commit felonies.

    4. Ban the filibuster.

    5. Ban amendments to bills if they do not address the main subject of the original bill.

    June 22, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Reply
  2. divinecovenant

    Although I would support a constitutional reformation, or a complete scraping of the document in favor of a new one, I think that such a task would be impossible for the United States for a plethora of reasons but mainly I think that comparing Iceland (a small meager country that has not even approached a half million in population that is populated almost exclusively by one single people group that has a fairly unified culture) with the USA (4th largest country in the world landmass-wise with over 300 million in population and endless numbers of cultural groups and interests) is untenable at best. There is no conceivable manner to satisfy all these people as there would have have to be so many amendments. Then the question of dominant language and of course religion would come into the picture.

    June 22, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  3. Jordan

    @ Josh Lam: The word "corporation" linguistically means that a "body" (corpus) is created. If a corporation is not a legal person, then it is not actually a corporation. So what you're actually proposing, whether you realize it or not, is to make all corporations irrelevant and useless, which would either be an economic disaster, or would cause the creation of a new system of equal effectiveness in securing and using property.

    The only constitutional amendment necessary to solve the vast majority of problems in the US right now, would be one that repeals the 16th amendment. The federal empire is an amazing, bloated monster, and repealing the Income Tax Amendment would starve it directly. Most of the social problems on this continent are the direct result of governmental interference in private or market matters. Restrict the federal government to its original constitutional chains. No more military-industrial complex, and thus no more drawn-out interventionist wars. no more deficit spending. no more drug war filling prisons with fresh meat for the criminal gangs. No more poverty-promoting social welfare programs. No more presumptuous confiscations of private property. No more national (de)education standards. No more national energy (mis)regulation. No more national police (FBI, DHS). No more national minimum wage, distorting the labor market, and no more illegal immigration. No more IRS. NO MORE CRIPPLING TAXATION.

    June 22, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Reply
    • Maciej

      Do you have perscription how to counter balance the growing forign powers like China under marxist-laninist perty leadership or historically imaerial Russia, etc?

      June 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  4. Karen

    After reading many of the a for mentioned statements, explanations and comments; I feel confident in my statement. Not everyone has a CLEAR understanding of our constitution or our laws. I certainly don't feel like what I learned in school is what I'm seeing. I know I would certainly like a truly unbiased explanation of how our country is supposed to work, again. I think in today's world with information being, for the most part, at everyone's fingertips it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction. I mean we all know when something sounds like bs, but really that is a matter of opinion and not fact.

    As far as my response to the article is concerned I think we should take Iceland's lead on this issue. There are tons of outdated laws on the books. They generaly aren't enforced which means technically we are breaking them. Though it may seem silly, it is what it is. How can we expect people to follow the law, our laws when they are only as strong as the attourneys that interpret them in the courtroom. Personally, I would appreciate a clearer definition of who and what we are as well as what should be happening. As opposed to Joe Smiths interpretation of how we can best manipulate a law to our advantage so it benefits one and not all. We have changed and grown so much as a Nation, I believe we owe it to ourselves and our children to have a clear understanding of all of our laws. I also believe that our laws should apply to everyone in this country no matter what their "status" is in this country. I believe that things will continue to be chaotic until a clear reformation of our Constitution and Laws are made. You can't wear the same pair of shoes forever, no matter how great they were when you first got them.

    June 22, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Reply
    • Sovereignty Soldier

      The constitution and "laws on the books" are two different things. To allow liars like we have to monkey around with our rights is dangerous. These people are NOT loyal Americans! They are globalists and traitors to the people and our way of life. I am amazed so many are still asleep or just plain ignorant sheep!

      June 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Reply
  5. Mike

    If you don't like the law of the land then I respectfully suggest that you go back to where you came from...One other thing, the Constitution that YOU want to trash allows you to even make that suggestion, which I doubt very seriously that you would be able to do in your country of origin...One last thing...MANY have given their lives for that document that you so disdain...

    June 22, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Reply
    • Karen

      I am HOME. I am a Native American of the Muskogee Indian tribe. And, I was an ARMY WIFE for 10 years. Anything else?

      June 22, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Reply
      • Sovereignty Soldier

        Karen, you forgot ignorant and a sheep. You should try turning OFF the TV and your radio and do a little research on the news stories you hear about.
        Test: do you believe they killed Bin Laden a few weeks back? If so do a little research of your own. Many credible people including Janet Reno said he was dead in 2001 and they were gonna pull him out when it was politically beneficial. But because the TV didn't tell you that you ignore and go along with media lies. Your living in a false reality and your ignorance is costing ALL of us. Wake Up!

        June 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  6. Keith

    Unfortunately, democracy does not work. We have too much already. Some of the dumbest legislation is passed in local and state referendums. We elect movie stars, professional wrestlers, and comedians to statewide and national office. The founders were right. They knew what would happen if the machinery of government were given too close to the common man. Their system of checks and balances included a check on the passions of the common man. Our modern system has upset that balance. As a result we have been voting ourselves something for nothing until we are bankrupt. The next step is to elect a president promising to blame foreigners for our troubles. I'll be investing in military manufacturing when that inevitably happens.

    June 22, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  7. Kurt Russell

    Yes we need some changes:

    1) get rid of the 16th amendment (IRS)
    2) create an amendment returning the power to mint coinage back tot eh Government & away from the Fed
    3) Create an amendment that forbids Congress from voting upon issues in which they have a vested interest, (For example senators who have Oil holdings can not vote on Oil Industry issues) preventing UNDUE Corporate interest & control upon the government

    Just 3 off the top of my head

    June 22, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  8. Fareedsn_idiot

    We should change the first amendment or just add this to it "Fareed shut the F up"

    June 22, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  9. FuzzyMath

    Flat tax

    Mandatory balanced budget

    No benefits of any kind for illegal immigrants, to include no citizenship for their children born here

    June 22, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Reply
    • Fareedsn_idiot

      Right on

      June 22, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  10. DonaldR

    My first three choices would never get through the amendment process but nonetheless seek to correct what I see as our worst problems: gun violence; government gridlock; and voter apathy.
    1) repeal the 2nd amendment and replace it with sane gun regulation.
    2) national popular vote for presidential elections;
    3) four year terms for senate and house synchronized with presidential terms,
    election by single transferable vote per state for senate and per groups of neighboring districts for the house.

    June 22, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Reply
  11. Josh Catalano

    1 – Ammendment to the consitution where it clarifies freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. i.e. enforcing what the original text meant and abolishing the 'separation of church and state doctrine'

    2 – The United States cannot and will not, under any circumstances, allow itself to be part of a one world government system.

    3 – Naturalized Citizens can run for President of the United States

    June 23, 2011 at 12:11 am | Reply
  12. Andrew Bailey

    You suggest that we change, as if it hasn't already happened, but you're new here, little brother, so I'll give you a break. Three hundred and thirty years ago, most of my ancestors were either already here, or gathering in England, the Netherlands, France, Scotland, Germany, and Ireland, soon to come here. Most of them were Protestants in a Catholic town and no longer welcome, farmers with no land, or both. 

    In the intervening three centuries, we have created a life for ourselves that could not have been imagined by any of the over two-thousand ancestors in question. These three centuries were not simple and care free. In fact, it's been a lot of hard work, strife, blood, and tears. Most of my ancestors were property of some sort, with little or no rights. This is no longer true. Even for the children. 

    All of us can now own land if we so choose, speak our piece in public, as I am doing right now, own the means to defend our person and property, worship the God of our choosing, or do as I do and attend no Church, travel about with little or no interference (sorta, kinda, mostly, but not really), educate ourselves as we see fit, create or abolish militias (police forces etc.) as we choose, hold elections, hold office, and so many, many other things we can now do that we could not do in the past that I shan't go on.

    From your short post, I cannot tell what else you want, but as far as I can tell, we are, generally speaking, the freest and most powerful people the Earth has ever known. Does this mean I'm happy? Hardly. I'm personally disgusted by the quality of leadership shown, at all levels of our culture, not only in the United States, but in all of the west. The devil's in the details. How to CHANGE THAT LEADERSHIP is the question, and I don't know. No one does. As far as I can tell, many of our leadership doesn't care for the freedoms we enjoy, and would rather trade all of it for one corporate charter that made them, or one of their friends, King of the World. They are all delusional and seem to believe that, somehow, this will happen, and all will be well.

    This is the attitude that has given us the "American Empire". Against all the warnings of our ancestors, and the very thing we escaped. Nothing you can do will change that. You may as well pass legislation against the sun.

    So, in conclusion, unless you know of a law that will make the men and women that run this goat rope of a dog-n-pony show called the United States care about the freedoms won for them by their ancestors, we shall pass as the wind with all of the Empires across the five millennia of human civilization, just like the ones in India, where your family came from.

    Does that make you happy? How about your boss, or the major bond holders of the company you work for? How will the charter under which the company operates be defended if some power, either foreign or domestic, decides to attack or assimilate the company? Who do they expect to defend them? Upon what ground do they stand? Isn't that really the question we should be asking?

    June 23, 2011 at 3:16 am | Reply
  13. Ryan Archer

    Change the Senate into a body that only deletes old laws, and is not involved in the process of creating new ones. In particular, it would work like this:
    1.)The Senate can vote to delete any text currently in the legal code. It explicitly cannot add anything new, just eliminate current provisions. Deletions passed by the Senate take effect immediately, without needing the approval of the president or the House.
    2.)New bills passed by the House go immediately to the president for signing or veto. Senate approval is not needed.

    This system has two benefits:
    1.)The Senate was always intended to protect the interests of the small states from tyranny by the big states. Under this type of negative power system, it can still do that, but without forcing everyone else to pay them favors to get anything done. Small states can simply vote to delete measures they don't like.
    2.)It provides a way of eliminating bad laws just because they are bad. The judicial system is good for enforcing the Constitution, but it was never meant as a way to eliminate laws just because we don't like them; that power is rightly reserved to the legislature. Making the Senate a body with negative rather than positive power puts laws under continuous review. It provides a way to sunset obsolete laws, to eliminate laws which experience has proven to be bad ideas, or to prune legislation that unfairly favors one state over the others (ie: pork barrel), without risking the introduction of even more bad legislation.

    June 23, 2011 at 7:57 am | Reply
    • Maciej

      I just imagine the Senate eliminating abolition of social security, medicate, or any other act which majority of the sociatey likes

      June 24, 2011 at 11:52 am | Reply
  14. MARK

    1) Elect Reps & Senators based on direct representation of a fixed number of voters, and 2) overturn Citizens Union declaring that only a natural born human can be a citizen and 3) institute strict public financing rules for campaigns forcing politicos to take matching funds from a public entity which matches funds raised from citizens after legislated "caps" on donations are complied with...,

    June 23, 2011 at 8:38 am | Reply
  15. Eddie Landsberg

    In many ways the constitution is an old clunker that we're holding on to, but is so weak mere tilts in the supreme court can change it's entire interpretation. - This is where a problem arises, as it would require commitment to particular interpretive ideology... the greatest being traditional "right leaning" libertarian democracy, or supposedly left leaning European style social democracy. –As the current political zeitgeist in America frequently tends to default to the right, I worry whether a revised document that's level headed and pragmatic would spark an ideological culture war with too many winners and losers. Therefore, at the current time I am skeptical whether it should be changed.

    June 23, 2011 at 9:20 am | Reply
  16. Dbroncos78087

    Separation of Corporation and State – making it clear that corporations are not people and only people are entitled to full protection under the Constitution

    Marriage equality – making it clear that everyone has equality in the eyes of the law. Fully enforcing the 14th Amendment.

    Environmental protection – something legitimizing the EPA and their job of keeping the environment from being destroyed.

    June 23, 2011 at 9:55 am | Reply
  17. Joe O.

    1) Twelve year term limits for all Congressmen, Senators, and Presidents. 2) Change the Presidency into two Presidents one of whom manages doemstic agencies and another who manages foreign affairs felated agencies – term of office to be 6 years each rotating each three years. 3) Vastly increase the members of the House of Representatives such that each Congressman represents something akin to what was originally intended ~ 50,000 constitutients (It's currently ~ 700,000). 4) Create a regional federal legislative body with 10 year terms who have oversight of only a narrow range of BIG long term related issues. Government (and business) are both focused on the short term and no one looks out for the long term interests.

    June 23, 2011 at 10:01 am | Reply
  18. David

    My top 3 amendment ideas:

    1. Required to balance budget (as states must do).

    2. Abolish electoral college.

    3. Establish term limits for members of Congress.

    June 23, 2011 at 10:16 am | Reply
    • Lee Anne

      YES to term limits!

      June 23, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
  19. ken

    The problem with both houses of congress is not the length of the terms, but the number of terms that they can serve.some of the old farts have been in so long that they think they own the position.Each seat in congress belongs to the people of the state that elects the representative or senator. we should just limit the number of consecutive years they can serve without a break,not the total number of years they can serve. Also former members should not be allowed to lobby. Corporations should not be treated as a person. If you cannot kill it with a bullet then no rights.

    June 23, 2011 at 11:42 am | Reply
  20. Sylena Smith

    Firstly, I would amend to Constitution to ensure the rights of women in this country never again hold any place subservient to the rights of men. Women deserve nothing less than equal rights.
    Secondly, I would amend the Constitution to bar undisclosed campaign contributions by corporations, or bar corporate contributions completely, including contributions to PACs that campaign independently for or against candidates. In addition, I would eliminate the campaign match by government for parties that receive majority votes. This gives unfair advantage and perpetuates the two-party system.
    Thirdly, I would eliminate the electoral college, so that the candidates receiving the majority of votes always win an election.
    You said to pick three, so I cannot go into filibusters or the block of presidential nominations here. But these would certainly be next items on my list.

    June 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  21. kirk

    GET RID OF ELECTORAL COLLEGE ARE YOU STUPID OR WHAT THAT WOULD DESTROY OUR NATION YOU MORON IT WOULD DISOLVE OVERNIGHT NO SMALL STATE WOULD STAY IN UNION

    DID HE EVEN GO TO SCHOOL

    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 vote only east and west coast would choose pres the union would dissolve NOT GOING TO HAPPEN

    you need 2/3 of states to ratify AGAIN not GONNA HAPPEN

    all the smaller staes would leave union OUTRIGHT

    we are a republic FOR A REASON

    June 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  22. kirk

    Democracy-worship suggests a childlike belief in the wisdom and goodness of "the people." But the people supported the guillotine in the French Revolution and Napoleon. The people were wild with joy as the British, French, and German boys marched off in August 1914 to the Great War that inflicted the mortal wound on Western civilization. The people supported Hitler and the Nuremburg Laws.

    Our fathers no more trusted in the people always to do the right thing than they trusted in kings. In the republic they created, the House of Representatives, the people's house, was severely restricted in its powers by a Bill of Rights and checked by a Senate whose members were to be chosen by the states, by a president with veto power, and by a Supreme Court.

    "What kind of government do we have?" the lady asked Benjamin Franklin, as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention.

    Said Franklin, "A republic – if you can keep it."

    Let us restore that republic and, as Jefferson said, "Hear no more of trust in men, but rather bind them down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution."

    June 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  23. kirk

    POPULAR VOTE ARE YOU NUTS THE FOUNDING FATHERS REJECTED THAT FOR A REASON

    its like two wolves and a sheep voting on whats for dinner

    June 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  24. kirk

    Madison’s observations in The Federalist number 10 are noteworthy at this point because they highlight a grave error made through the centuries regarding Democracy as a form of government. He commented as follows:

    "Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions."

    Democracy, as a form of government, is utterly repugnant to–is the very antithesis of–the traditional American system: that of a Republic, and its underlying philosophy, as expressed in essence in the Declaration of Independence with primary emphasis upon the people’s forming their government so as to permit them to possess only "just powers" (limited powers) in order to make and keep secure the God-given, unalienable rights of each and every Individual and therefore of all groups of Individuals

    June 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  25. kirk

    James Madison wrote in the Federalist Paper No. 10, “Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.”

    In other words a democracy allows for mob rule where the majority always gets their way. If the majority votes to take away your land, you lose your land. If the majority votes to outlaw your business, you lose your business

    June 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  26. kirk

    in a popular vote only the east and west coast would elect our leader the electoral system makes sure all states have equal rights REMEMBER WE ARE A UNION OF STATES and a state like indiana would NEVER EVER ALLOW A STATE LIKE CALIFORNIA TO DICTATE WHAT LEADER WE HAVE SAME ARE THE BEGGINING ITS THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP UNION TOGATHER

    June 23, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Reply
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