The Problem in Washington Isn’t the Constitution

Rich Tucker

1/6/2013 12:01:00 AM - Rich Tucker

It’s easy to pity Kremlinologists. These are people who spent years, even decades, studying the Soviet Union. Their job was to explain why that country did the things it did, even though those actions so often seemed counterproductive. Suddenly, though, the USSR dissolved and the Kremlinologists were out of work.

Louis Michael Seidman hopes to join them on the unemployment lines. He’s a “professor of constitutional law” at Georgetown University. That means students pay more than $60,000 per year to hear him lecture.

Nonetheless, Seidman apparently wants to end his cushy teaching gig. “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution” reads the title of his New York Times op-ed, published on Dec. 30. That sounds akin to a doctor declaring “who needs anatomy?” or a pilot asking “what good is aerodynamics?” But Seidman means it; he really wants to do away with the Constitution.

“Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse,” he writes. “As someone who has taught constitutional law for almost 40 years, I am ashamed it took me so long to see how bizarre all this is.” Just imagine how all his former students must feel reading that. Can they get a tuition refund?

Seidman writes that he wants to replace our archaic Constitution with something that would allow for quicker response times. His new governing document wouldn’t need to be a document at all; Great Britain and New Zealand are humming along without a written constitution. He’d also keep some of the practical bits, such as the length of the president’s term. After all, “Some matters are better left settled, even if not in exactly the way we favor.”

His essay seems to boil down to: “Keep the stuff I agree with, do away with the rest.”

So why would a Con law prof want to eliminate the document he’s been studying for a lifetime? Seidman explains: “As the nation teeters at the edge of fiscal chaos, observers are reaching the conclusion that the American system of government is broken.”

Oh.

That’s not much of an insight. American political observers have been complaining about our faulty system since the time of King George III. It’s a key reason, as Seidman admits, that the Constitution was written in the first place: because the Articles of Confederation weren’t working well enough for many Americans.

Back then Americans revolted. Today, Seidman doesn’t seem to think we’re revolting enough. “Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago,” he writes.

But our country’s problem isn’t the Constitution. Note that Seidman seems to root his piece in the recently-concluded fiscal cliff debacle. Yet nobody involved in that debate relied on Madisonian arguments. It was all about taxing and spending, the sort of thing any government is going to have to do no matter how it’s organized. That’s practical, if not particularly forward-looking, politics.

President Obama, for example, has only one apparent policy: to force “the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more in taxes.” That’s a political decision that has nothing to do with the Constitution. In fact, since he cannot run again, Obama is, constitutionally, in a perfect position to think big and show real leadership. He could propose sweeping solutions to our fiscal problems. He doesn’t seem to have any interest in doing so.

Instead, “Obama refuses to concede that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are driving future spending and deficits,” notes Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. “So when Republicans make concessions on taxes (as they have), they get little in return.”

Obama’s desired tax increases will have almost no effect on the budget deficit, which clocked in last year at $1,089 billion. We can’t tax ourselves out of our $16 trillion debt.

There are answers. The Heritage Foundation has designed a comprehensive plan that would allow us to Save the American Dream. Getting there will require political leadership and difficult decisions, but it can be done.

The problem isn’t the Constitution, it’s the people we’ve elected to govern. The Senate, for example, refuses to pass a budget. That’s a political decision made by Senate leadership. We could change the Constitution (some have proposed a balanced budget amendment), but smart, principled leaders could balance the budget without changing the Constitution.

The Constitution isn’t perfect, but it creates a framework under which Americans can determine our own political future. Let’s keep it in place, and maybe even actually read it. That might encourage us to elect different people to represent us in government. We don’t need to go the way of the USSR, and Prof. Seidman can keep his day job.