If It Ain't Broke ... Keep Your Amendments off My Constitution

Article excerpt

This book was commissioned by the Twentieth Century Fund in the belief that the American Constitution is under unfair attack from both the political left and right. The left is unhappy that the national government has done too little to meet what they consider to be our most pressing national problems -- urban poverty, environmental deterioration, inadequate and expensive health care, racial and gender discrimination -- and blames the Constitution for these perceived failures. The right is unhappy because the national government has done too much to tax away our income, reduce savings, increase the deficit, regulate minute details of our business activity and personal behavior, and discriminate in favor of minority groups; it also blames the Constitution for these perceived excesses. Both left and right urge corrective constitutional amendments. As Fund President Richard Leone explains in a short introduction, what is missing from the debate is a defense of the Constitution as it stands. It is the intent of The New Federalist Papers to make that case.

The original Federalist Papers have become almost as famous as the Constitution they explicate. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote them to persuade the new American states to ratify the federal charter drafted by the Philadelphia Convention. Originally published in the newspapers of the time, the Federalist Papers could easily have disappeared from view along with the rest of the daily news of the 1780s. Instead, they became our most important record of the formation of the republic. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that as the Bible is to the Creation, so the Federalist Papers are to the Constitution.

From time to time in our history, advocates and opponents of major changes in our political system have invoked the Federalist Papers Both North and South cited them during the run-up to the Civil War. After World War II, a group calling itself the World Federalists proposed a union of the major democracies around the globe (including China and South Africa). Boasting supporters such as Gen. George Marshall, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, and Sen. Estes Kefauver, the group proposed a federal charter based largely on the American Constitution, under which the United States would be one of 20-odd constituent states. To advocate the idea, retired Justice Roberts, Clarence Streit and J. Schmidt wrote The New Federalist Papers, published in 1950.

Now we have another set of New Federalist Papers, written by a more scholarly triumvirate: historian Alan Brinkley, political scientist Nelson W. Polsby, and constitutional law professor Kathleen M. Sullivan. Far from advocating so fundamental a change in our political structure as the Roberts-Streit-Schmidt proposal, the message this time is essentially to leave well enough alone. (One is reminded of the first Reform Act that democratized the electorate and make-up of the British Parliament; during the debate an opponent of the Bill argued: "Reform, Reform, why do we want Reform? Things are already bad enough as they are!")

A nonradical triad if ever there was one, Brinkley, Polsby, and Sullivan have written an admirable and highly readable volume of centrist political thought, providing a welcome antidote to what we've been hearing from the right and left. They see the flaws in our constitutional system, but they see its virtues as well. They recognize our failures to achieve policy outcomes as decisively as the parliamentary systems, but they blame these failures less on the Constitution than on the political structures that have evolved beneath it.

Original Intent

Polsby reminds us that while the framers modeled much of our Constitution on Montesquieu's concept of the "separation of powers" among the executive, the legislature, and the courts, they departed from his theory in one crucial respect. They did not lodge the executive power solely in the president, having suffered from the unchecked power of King George. …