Sabato: Constitution ready for a tune-up

If Larry Sabato were left alone in a room with the Constitution and a red pen, the nation’s most precious document could be in a lot of trouble.

But it’s not out of malice that Sabato calls for constitutional edits. It is, rather, out of a genuine love and admiration for the document he describes as “genius” that he recommends 23 specific improvements. 

In A More Perfect Constitution, Sabato outlines proposals that he believes would bring the document in line with America’s politicians, principles and population in the 21st century.

The founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Sabato argues that the Founding Fathers who created the “dazzling piece of statecraft” would have never wanted the document to remain stagnant.

 “We have betrayed the Founders by having closed minds and pretending it was written [by a higher force],” he said. “It was not; it was written by a group of men.”

As Sabato navigates through his literary renovation of the three branches of government, the reader can’t help but hold out hope that maybe someday, some of these sweeping changes could actually bring the nation’s government out of its intellectual quagmire.

Sabato describes his changes as “moderate” and “structural in nature,” but they still may be too much for the faint of heart and the many policymakers who are bankrupt of imagination. And given that many Americans lack interest in the inner workings of the government, coupled with the public’s resistance to change, many of these improvements are unlikely to occur in the near to distant future.

The overhaul begins with, but is not limited to, the Senate, where Sabato says the egalitarian system of two individuals from each state has created a disparity between larger states and smaller states. His solution: expanding the size of the Senate to give the 10 most populous states two additional members and the following 15 one more representative. The House would also be expanded to 1,000 members, and those members would be term-limited.

 “Objects that rest remain at rest,” Sabato said.

The legislative branch is only the beginning. Sabato also proposes that Supreme Court justices should no longer enjoy lifetime terms, while the president should be limited to a six-year term with “a five-year extension referendum.”

In an interview, Sabato acknowledged that many of these changes would take time.

 “I’m simply trying to start the conversation,” Sabato said. “There are ways that we as a dynamic society can change and adapt.”
Among the more radical of Sabato’s suggestions is one that he deems among the most important: mandatory service for American young adults.

“This is a great way to tap into the idealism of youth,” he said. He added that the service did not necessarily have to be in the United States military, but could also include work in organizations like the Peace Corps and the American Red Cross.

While he swings from topics that can cause the reader’s eyes to glaze over — such as a balanced budget or the Electoral College — his lively, conversational tone and compelling examples make the reader a more than willing student for this updated civics lesson.

A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country
By Larry J. Sabato

Walker and Company, 2007
352 pages, $25.95