A New Bill of Rights

Of the 27 existing amendments to the U.S. constitution, only two have passed in the last fifty years. In 1971, the 26th Amendment set the voting age at 18 (it had previously been 21), and in 1992 the constitution was amended to delay congressional pay rises to the term after they were enacted (to keep members of Congress from voting themselves even more gravy trains).

The reason so few amendments have passed in 230 years, altering what is a seriously flawed document (in 2020 do we really need electors to cast our ballots?), is that the mechanism for change is hostage to controlling fortunes.

Although the constitution spells out several ways for amendments to pass, only one path is ever used: an amendment passes by a two-thirds majority in the House and in the Senate, and then goes to state legislatures, where it must pass in three-fourths (or 38) of the states in a determined period of time, usually about seven years.

The problem with these amendment procedures is that governance is delegated to those in the House and Senate responsible for the mess in the first place. (Keep in mind that Congress responded to the 9/11 attacks with the USA Patriot Act, in effect declaring war on its own citizens.)

There is another way to amend the U.S. constitution, which has never been used. Under this formula, two-thirds of state legislatures can call for a constitutional convention, and then, after collecting proposals for amendments, three-quarters of state legislatures can pass these amendments into law. Congress isn’t part of this process.

In other words, the fossilized troika of Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer need have nothing to do with reforming the country, provided that enough grass roots support for change can be found at the state level.

I know, it’s a long shot, especially as the Koch brothers control so many state legislatures (“the finest that money can buy….”). But to expect serious governance from Congress is a fool’s errand—similar to the illusion that replacing Donald Trump with Joe Biden will represent effective change.

On the off chance that two-thirds of the states decide to hold a constitutional convention (to overhaul a document that tolerated the slave trade until 1808 and slavery itself until 1865), here are twenty amendments for a new bill of rights that I would like to see ratified.

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President: The president (and vice-president) shall be elected based on the principal of one person one vote in a national election, regardless of the state in which the voter shall reside.

In the event that there are more than two national candidates for the presidency, ranked choice voting procedures shall be applied in tabulating the results, to insure that the winner will have more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

The states shall count the votes and submit their tallies to the House of Representatives on the second Monday in December following the national election, after which a winner will be declared.

Party nominees for the presidency shall be chosen based on several successive regional party primaries held during the six months prior to the presidential election, and determined by ranked choice voting rules.

Up to twenty candidates may stand in the first primaries, and in the second round no more than five shall be on party ballots.

The president shall serve one six-year term. No one may run for president after the age of 72, and all candidates in the primaries and general election must release their tax returns and complete a financial disclosure statement.

Supreme Court: The Supreme Court shall be composed of fifteen justices, who shall each serve one fifteen-year term, which cannot be extended.

The court shall be constituted on the following terms: the joint houses of Congress shall be entitled to appoint five members (one every three years); the people of the United States shall choose five justices by direct election (one every three years); the President shall nominate five justices, all of whom shall be subject to confirmation by a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate (one every three years).

Current justices are eligible to serve on the Supreme Court following the adoption of this amendment, provided they are appointed or win direct election.

In the first fifteen years of this law, terms shall be staggered so that in the future one justice is appointed each year. A joint resolution of Congress shall establish the order of appointment and the initial terms.

Term limits: No member of the U.S. Senate may serve more than three, six-year terms, of any part thereof, and no member of the House of Representatives may serve more than ten, two-year terms.

Guns: The right to bear arms is affirmed, according to the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Gun ownership shall not be transferable, and gun owners shall be liable for any crimes committed by someone using their weapon.

Anyone owning a firearm must serve two months every three years, up to age 60, in their state militia or National Guard.

Income and tax: All individuals, partnerships, and corporations must pay 25 percent of their net income in tax.

Each American household shall be entitled to enjoy a basic threshold income, either from its earnings or direct subsidies from the government. Congress shall fix the threshold annually.

Spending limits: The federal budget shall not exceed, by more than 10 percent, the previous year’s revenue intake.

National debt: The national debt shall be repaid in full (for one year) every ten years. Congress shall establish a national savings fund that can be drawn from in periods of crisis.

Voter registration: No state shall infringe the right of any citizen who has registered or is attempting to register to vote.

Voting week: All citizens shall have the right to cast their ballots by mail, electronically, or in person, during the first week, inclusive of the weekend, of each November.

Personal rights: Neither Congress, nor the states, nor individual corporations shall restrict the freedom or civil rights of any citizen or lawful immigrant based on race, religion, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation.

Nor shall anyone be discriminated against based on age, disability, marital status, or pregnancy. Any two citizens shall have the right to marry and shall enjoy equal protection under the law.

Capital punishment: Capital punishment shall be abolished.

Carbon neutrality: Neither the United States, nor its citizens or corporations, shall be entitled to consume any of the world’s air, water, soil or other natural resources, except on the basis of offset compensation, with the goal of meeting the United Nations Agreement of Paris international deadlines for carbon emissions and other pollutants within ten years.

National service: All citizens over the age of 18 and before their 30th birthday must serve one year of national service, either in the military or a civil capacity.

Tuition credit: All citizens with a valid high school degree from an accredited institution shall be eligible to attend for two years, tuition-free, any state or community college, or accredited trade school, provided the student remains in good standing at their place of learning.

Restitution: Descendants of citizens who were forced to work in slavery prior to 1865 shall be eligible to receive tuition credit to attend any accredited college or university courses, provided they remain in good standing.

Arbitration in civil disputes: Civil disputes for monetary amounts of less than one million dollars (which shall be indexed to inflation) shall be decided by arbitration panels of three persons, who shall be required by law to render their verdicts within one year of the case being filed. The losing party in all arbitration cases shall pay the court fees.

Immigration: After ten years in the United States, all immigrants, no matter how they arrived in the country, shall be eligible to apply for citizenship.

Social security: The age to receive social security benefits shall be 72 and reviewed every five years.

Health insurance: Every citizen and lawful immigrant shall have the right to purchase affordable national health insurance, the cost of which shall be determined by Congress.

Campaign finance: Campaign contributions—be they from individuals, corporations, political action committees, or any other legal entity—shall be limited to $2500—per person, per candidate, per year.

Should Congress fail to comply with any of these amendments, the chair persons of all House and Senate committees and subcommittees shall not be eligible to stand for re-election.

Don’t agree with my amendments? Hey, write your own, and bring them to the constitutional convention. Or read these words, written in 1789, of Thomas Jefferson:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this [he wrote this in France] or our side of the water… (But) between society and society, or generation and generation there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have perceived that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another… On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation… Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19. years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.

 

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.