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 And, anyway, they felt the document was old and outdated, drafted all the way back in 1944.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

    I am totally in favor of changes that would totally dismantle the two party (D/R) system that is in absolute control of our state and federal governments. Any change that does not do that is just accelerating or delaying our inevitable implosion. Giving more power to the states that already have the most power is just a bad idea IMO.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  2. Tony

    I would recommend an amendment to democratize and legitimize our participation in the global community, including global policy making, war authority and judicial review. The U.S. should be able to participate in the war in Libya, for example, without the approval of elected partisan officials answering only to domestic constituents' concerns. An alternative approval process, perhaps through approval by the Security Council and a democratically elected global parliamentary assembly, could recognize the President's authority in contributing troops.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  3. cj

    I have a problem with changing own constitution. The biggest thing I see in doing this is the fact of History in the making of laws in the first place. There has never been a law or even a new rule put into place by our constituents that did not benefit our constituents in some way, or form... or that fact it benefited the lobbyist. They have never passed a bill that did not include some hidden agenda. Also because of the way some Bills have passed there has always been loopholes, or a means to read into the Bill as they see fit.

    This is a huge problem with taking on the constitution. It is by far nothing to be taking lightly. It is a huge big deal. I just don't think our constituents are up to the challenge. Their records do not reflect a total regard for the people. They represent big money, not the people. leave the Constitution alone.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  4. Burbank

    We need to get rid of the anchor baby law big time! It has been abused over and over and this type of abuse is not what the law makers intended.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  5. Fred Manning

    I'll never foregt last months T.V.show in Egypt.He's got four, young activists and he's trying to coax them into "singing praise", for the Prez.All 4 said he"s no good!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Now listen Fareed,the constitution is a nebulous nothing.The Bill of rights(I'll bet a million bucks he has no idea who wrote it)is the important document.Also,only a novioce wouldn't realize. that without the electoral vote ,the canidates would appeal only and solely, to the largest states.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  6. Chuck

    We are a Constitutional Republic and the power is balanced for a reason. This protects minority rights. Folks "like" a straight democracy only when there rights are not trampled which is only a matter of time should you change from a Republic. Suffice to say we have yet to understand the wisdom of the founding Father's and we will not understand that wisdom until we accept the moral code that wisdom was founded on. If you prefer an Icelandic constitution you are free to head out.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  7. Chris

    1) get rid of the electoral college. 1 person should = 1 vote. Currently, a democrat in Texas has just as much say in the Presidential race as a republican in California... exactly none.
    2) Reduce the legth of service for Senators from 6 years to 4.
    3) Limit the life time appointment of a supreme court judges to no more than 20 years.
    4) Revise the statement "all men are created equal" to be, "all people are created equal, regardless of race, gender, religion, or belief" (and "belief" would include both political and social opinions, ie. no more McCarthyism or loyalty tests).
    5) No corporate donations to campaigns, or at least make them public so everyone can see (with a limit of $50,000). and private donations limited to $5,000 per person.

    Though this all could be done through amendments. I cant think of any changes so extream that would require a rewrite.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  8. Jeff

    Sure, propose all you want. Here's the thing. The current constitution still rules until a 2/3 majority vote says otherwise. Unless you think you can get 2/3 politicians to vote yes, please stop talking.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  9. NickB5

    I don't feel any of our current politicians are smart enough or trustworthy enough to be allowed to tinker with such an important document. Just look what they did with health care, the thing turned into a monster and no public option was even considered for more than a second.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  10. Bob Hope

    "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."

    Sadly, many Americans born and raised in this country share the same lack of historical knowledge that you do. You should probably do a little more research into how a system of government is supposed to function before you criticize it for doing exactly what it is intended to do.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  11. Kevin

    Drivel. This is a terrible suggestion that ignores all of the wisdom behind the thought. The US Constitution is the confluence of the great classical liberal thinkers of the eighteenth century, and the understanding that individual freedom is more important than a strong government. There are already mechanisms to achieve political change, but retarding them to prevent knee-jerk reactions was a brilliant concept that was well enacted in the framing of our country. Mr. Zakaria proves the bias of CNN in wishing for the ability to radically shift the rules with slim majorities as one can in a simple (in the pejorative manner) democracy devoid of the checks and balances laid out in our Constitution. Also, you are historically wrong, the Supreme Court was always to hold the power it currently does. Uninformed, biased oped, you should be ashamed.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • NickB5

      Agreed!

      June 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  12. messup

    Exactly what our Founding Fathers wanted to avoid, what Iceland is doing. Iceland will soon realize "the mob" can't Rule!
    A carefully structured, decentralized form of governmenit, representative form of government, and an
    electoral College avoiding a "direct election of The President by guaranteeing a majority to the popular vote winner". This latter is what " Lefties" in the USA are really after. Changing the Electoral College, With National Popular Vote Movemeents proposed amendments(SB S.679). Folks, the "lefties" are pulling out all stops in oder to guarantee their "anointed one" relection. (re: The Way Stuff Works, now taught in all schools across our USof A – a George Soros film).The former, a joint effort by Mr. Tom Golisano and Sen. "chucky" Chuck Schumer.VOTE, massive fraud is on its way this coming 2012 election!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  13. Paul M

    1: Establish a 16 % national flat tax............no exemptions.......State taxes capped at 3% max.No other taxes.
    2: If a corporation moves it's headquarters overseas or employs more than 25% of it's orders or workforce overseas then they would get punished in the form of a special scale tax.
    3: Politicians can spend up to a maximum of $100,00 per campaign.No corporate funding allowed.Any excess funds can go either to the state deficit or to education.
    4: Public networks must give all candidates equal access to TV time on a set aside political channel
    5: Politicians are absolutely limited to 2 terms in congress and 1 in the Senate
    6: Corporate donations to and lobbying of politicians banned by statute with significant penalties for non compliance.
    &: Exit polling and/or projections banned.
    9: All states have a uniform tax rate and no incentives or tax breaks to induce companies to migrate from state to state
    10. Military spending to be capped at X% of GDP. This provision can be overridden by a special vote of congress and Senate but only for a period of 2 years.This can be rolled over as needs be.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  14. For Liberty

    No, it is not time for a new constitution. It is time we started following the one we have!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  15. StClown

    We need to keep the Senate, just as when the Constitution was originally drafted, as a method to protect the interests of the smaller states. Quite simply, the interests of Californians do not necessarily line up with the interests of North Dakotans. Should the Senate have been established in a method similar to the House of Representatives we would have little more than majority rule in the country, with the potential to run rough shod over minority interests. As it stands, we all too often run up against that dangerous precipice, but the Senate still holds great value in what little protection it can still offer since the, in my opinion, well intended but foolish passing of the Seventeenth Amendment.

    As to any changes needed in the Constitution, we need to add a provision that would rein in the power of Washington, to strengthen the Tenth Amendment and tighten the powers of the Commerce Clause. When inactivity in commerce is seen as being under the purview of the Federal government, things have gone wrong. Look to the US Supreme Court case (I forget the name) where the wheat farmer growing a small crop just for his family's use is declared to fall under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Department and thus able to be regulated. I dislike asparagus and instead purchase broccoli and cauliflower, should that mean my choice to instead purchase broccoli really be a concern of Washington DC's?

    June 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  16. Mo

    Where did you get the idea that it is not one person one vote. That's how you elect your representation in congress, (both the house and senate) just don't confuse this with being a democracy as the United States of American is not now has not ever been and hopefully will never be a democracy, it is a Republic and therefore is not subject to the mob rule of a democracy!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  17. Mat

    I have a radical idea... why not tie the rewriting of the constitution to an event worthy of the task, like merging the US and Mexico into one country? Here me out. The merger would do many positive things. First it would end the illegal alien vs citizenship benefits debate, and reduce our southern boarder exposure to a fraction of what it is now. It would cripple the current drug smuggling and associated violence by giving our less corrupt than Mexico's federal, state, and military policing agencies access to the root of the problems. It would encourage a major economic boost that could last decades as people on both sides of the existing boarder move for new opportunities, construction and other infrastructure workers heading south to bring Mexico up to US standards of living and skilled and unskilled workers moving north to find better opportunities than currently available in their 3rd world like cities. There are other benefits too... To create a new Constitution for a new country makes more sense than simply disguarding what we have because it's old and we think we are smarter than our forefathers. And my addition would be the inclusion of a handful of common sense laws that would eliminate the need for creating thousands of new laws each year to cover another small sliver of the human existence.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • StClown

      So in order to create a new US constitution, you want to annex Mexico? Are you prepared for yet another war? Because I doubt Mexico would agree to that quietly.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  18. Jugger

    I also believe that the electorial college is outdated and no longer useful. We need to set term limits on all national representitives. President is already set at 2 four year terms. Senate could be 4 three year terms. House of Representitives could be 4 two year terms. That would limit the longevity that some of these "career politicians" have. Add in to the term limits that Congress has to abide by all the rules and laws that they pass, no loopholes, no bypassing the laws. New taxes? Congress pays those also. New healthcare plan? Congress will be first in line to use it. This might help Congress actually pass legislation that everyone can live by.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  19. KentLaw

    1: a yearly budget is set and it takes a unanamous vote of the House, Senate, and ALL State Governors in order to spend beyond the budget (i.e: incur debt);

    2: term limits for Congressional representatives – there's no reason you should stay in office just because you've been there for a long time – Congress needs fresh ideas;

    3: abolition of political parties (James Madison's idea, not completely mine) – lumping your name in with a large group of people who think like you is stupid; if your ideas are any good, let's hear them, but don't just accept the status quo of a party and hide behind their size. This means that when you run for office, you actually need to have good ideas, not just put an (R) or (D) next to your name. We're not that stupid – we research before we vote.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  20. BasisofSuccess

    Why would we redo a document and institution that has enabled the U.S. to become what it is. The problem now is not that the document exists it is that nobody actually follows it. What we need to do is go back and start following the law of the land and once that is done, we can make some intelligent observations on what works and what doesn't. Until we actually start living by the law there is no validation that the law is wrong. And while your at it, update that other document that was written even before the Constitution. I think more people have used that document for wrong than the Constitution!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  21. socrateze

    Only a revolution that stops the corporations from controlling the news, the politicians, and the laws will fix the country. This country has been ruined and the people are alseep on the couch letting the same people ruining it tell them what to think.

    WAKE UP! HUMANITY>PATRIOTISM

    June 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Chris

      I don't think anyone could have summed up what's wrong with American politics and our "democracy" better than you just did. And I couldn't agree more. We have become a corporatocracy, allowng business entities to become human beings. Citizens United was deplorable, and is the single most important reason politics in the US is destined to fail. Like you say – the corp's own the news media and all information outlets, allowing an extremely dangerous system of power and control to convert Americans into submissive, obedient, subservient drones. The Middle East got sick of being treated like drones.....I'm ready to throw out the ENTIRE government right now and start from scratch. Right.....this......very....minute.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Reply
      • socrateze

        The middle east is treated like drones and attacked by heartless individuals playing "video game" like computer software that controls drones. Not all that glitter is gold. You can't take your millitary pension to the afterlife.

        June 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
      • AI

        That is complete straw. That decision has a very minor effect compared to the influence all of the full time lobbyists in Washington do. It's a deliberate red herring, whining about campaign finance. Why don't you estimate the amount of money spent funding lobbying efforts to influence legislators, and actually write the laws passed by them, by the army of special interest lobbyists? They spend $100 on those lobbyists for every dollar they spend on campaigns.

        Citizens United changed nothing.

        June 20, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Fred Manning

      The business of America is business.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  22. Matthew Kilburn

    Constitutional Amendments should be primarily about process...and I'm not convinced our process is all that bad. Unless you're looking to switch to a UK-style parlimentary system, we're going to stay a two-party state...and thats actually a good thing – think how dysfunctional we would be if 20% of the population had to wheel and deal and make corrupt bargins to get the support of minor parties.

    Abolish term limits – there's no good reason why we should treat the public like they are too stupid to vote out truly bad leaders who have pulled one over too many times. Also, limit the power of the judiciary, and either expand the Senate, or switch to four-year terms so that every state can have a say each election cycle.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  23. Matthew Kilburn

    "Only a revolution that stops the corporations from controlling the news, the politicians, and the laws will fix the country. This country has been ruined and the people are alseep on the couch letting the same people ruining it tell them what to think."

    You think Corporations are so evil? Fine – you should be the first one to surrender all the jobs they create, the events they sponsor, the luxuries they invent, etc. At some point, every corporation was a small business. Lets not punish people for being accomplished...

    June 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Reply
    • socrateze

      ok, but lets stop them from profiting off of wars, stop them from funding politicians, and keep them in check.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  24. Jason B.

    If the writer had half a clue, our Legislature is very democratic. The Senate is 2 members per state, the House is represented according to population. Perhaps Mr. Zakaria would feel better if California and New York simply got their ways by having the largest populations?

    I do agree with dumping the electoral college. It's way outdated. It was useful 200 years ago when news was hard to come by and half the country was illiterate, but not so useful now. Besides, here in KS if you get 50.1% of the vote, you get all the ballots. How is that fair? You just threw out nearly half of the votes cast!

    June 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  25. OldMo

    What is undemocratic is election fraud. Why not start with having to produce a photo ID when you vote?

    June 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  26. Ken

    Zakaria,

    While advancing the discussion of constitutional issues, rights, and progress is quite commendable (unfortunately far too few members of the younger generations have even a basic grounding in the history of our country) you really need to step back for a moment and look at what you wrote down today. Your thesis is grounded in the idea that the United States is simply a federal government and each person's representation is measured in the power of their vote at the federal level. That is an incredibly simplistic view of how the US works, and is very much incorrect when you take that viewpoint and cast it over bodies such as the Senate or the Electoral College system. Our federal system of government was setup first and foremost to preserve states rights, set a legal and moral baseline for individual rights within the boundaries of the country, and finally to create a unified outward looking body to represent those states in matters of security, international commerce, and diplomacy. Of course over time power has shifted back and forth between the federal body and the states that it represents, but that is the premise. The Senate as a body was create to be a counterpoint to the House of Congress, where the strength of each state's vote is determined by the state's population. The Senate enables smaller states such as Deleware and Rhode Island to oppose the so-called tyranny of the masses where the opinions a single or small collection of much larger state can have an outsized say in laws due to their weight in the House. Without this counterpoint, you do not preserve states right's.

    The electoral college is trickier, because while the number of electoral votes in each state is based on a percentage of overall population pool (similar to Congress) you do have to remember that each elector, how they may vote, and how the pool of electoral votes are given to candidates are determined completely on state laws. The electoral college actually preserves the states rights in determining the executive branch of the federal government, and while people gripe about how it doesn't always mirror the popular vote (Richard Nixon's election in 1968 is a great example) efforts to change this mechanic tend to die out because states do not want to give the power to mandate how their electoral votes are handled to the federal government, and smaller states fear any change will severely limit their ability to influence the election.

    Again, it's great to see this being discussed in an open forum but this article really only muddies the water for people by making the entire question out to be an overly simple problem with equally simple solutions.

    June 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  27. Strongbow

    The author appears to be sorely lacking in why the bi-cameral legislature and the Electoral College were constructed as they are. The US is a Republic, not a true democracy. It was designed that way to put citizens of the smallest states (population) on an equal footing with the largest states, and all in between. However, Senators used to be appointed by State Governors, until the Constitution was amended, and that gave the States a check and balance against the popularly elected House of Representatives. I personally believe we should go back to that model, so the States might flex their muscle under the 10th Amendment again. That said there are some new Amendments that I would propose: 1) Balanced Budget – new and increased taxes, and deficit spending only with 2/3 or 3/4 Congressional approval during times of emergency and debts incurred in this manner must be rectified within 5 years; spending cuts by simple majority. 2) All laws passed apply equally to elected officials and citizens. No expemptions 3) Elected officials may not collect a pension for government service. (passion to work for the people, not a fat retirement, should be the incentive to serve multiple terms). 4) Reiteration of 10th Amendment that those powers not specifically granted in the COnstitution to the Federal government are completely off-limits and reserved to the States and the People respectively.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  28. Troy Vandeventer

    Why amend a document we don't use?. The world knows that the US is now a Democracy. Did you know that America was meant to be a Republic, NOT a Democracy. If you want to know more just Google 'Is the us a democracy or a republic'. You may be surprised at what you find out. I say to all those who are oppressed by our DEMOCRACY, Cry Out. I say to all those who are afraid of our own government , Cry Out. To you, the Democratic government of America, as in the time of our forefathers when THEY cried out....The Revolution is coming. We fear you no more.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • socrateze

      Fist in the air in a land of hypocrisy!

      June 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  29. Charles

    If we limited our progress in science and medicine as much as we've limited our progress in government, we'd still be blood letting using hot skinning knives. We can pay homage to our history by using it as a foundation for a new system; much like we honor the magna carta, only it would be our history, our foundation.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  30. marysia grant

    When reading 'the Republic' by Plato (a bit before the American Consitution) , one is struck how little human nature has changed .So, dispite society'expressing ' itself differently , basic human nature is in fact ,the same. Any good constitution will take this into account.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • Fred Manning

      Hamurabi's code was 2000BCish and the basics of the Magna Carta,etc,..Aristotle and the boys even had the word "atom".They did it all.

      June 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply
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