Framed: America's Fifty-One Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance

Framed: America's Fifty-One Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance

Framed: America's Fifty-One Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance

Framed: America's Fifty-One Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance

Synopsis

In his widely acclaimed volume Our Undemocratic Constitution, Sanford Levinson boldly argued that our Constitution should not be treated with "sanctimonious reverence," but as a badly flawed document deserving revision. Now Levinson takes us deeper, asking what were the original assumptionsunderlying our institutions, and whether we accept those assumptions 225 years later. In Framed, Levinson challenges our belief that the most important features of our constitutions concern what rights they protect. Instead, he focuses on the fundamental procedures of governance such as congressional bicameralism; the selection of the President by the electoral college, or thedimensions of the President's veto power--not to mention the near impossibility of amending the United States Constitution. These seemingly "settled" and "hardwired" structures contribute to the now almost universally recognized "dysfunctionality" of American politics. Levinson argues that we should stop treating the United States Constitution as uniquely exemplifying the American constitutional tradition. We should be aware of the 50 state constitutions, often interestingly different - and perhaps better - than the national model. Many states have updated theirconstitutions by frequent amendment or by complete replacement via state constitutional conventions. California's ungovernable condition has prompted serious calls for a constitutional convention. This constant churn indicates that basic law often reaches the point where it fails and becomesobsolete. Given the experience of so many states, he writes, surely it is reasonable to believe that the U.S. Constitution merits its own updating. Whether we are concerned about making America more genuinely democratic or only about creating a system of government that can more effectively respond to contemporary challenges, we must confront the ways our constitutions, especially the United States Constitution, must be changed in fundamentalways.

Excerpt

I. CONNECTING THE DOTS

This book is the result of many years of reflection. But it—especially the title—also is a response to contemporary American politics. The most basic question that can one can ask about any political system is whether it is capable of governing effectively, even if one recognizes that there will be different criteria of “effectiveness.” As the manuscript moved toward publication, the Minnesota state government was shut down for three weeks because of the inability of its divided state government to reach agreement on a budget. In 2009, a similar budget crisis in California led to the nation’s largest state being unable to pay its public employees and other creditors for several weeks; instead they were offered the equivalent of IOUs. In 2012, the unwillingness of two Republicans in the California Assembly to support a plea by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown to allow a public referendum on retaining some taxes that were scheduled to expire led to what many regarded as the decimation of the once-vaunted public education system in that state. (It takes two-thirds of the legislature to place an issue on the ballot, and “only” a majority of the legislature was willing to place the issue before the electorate.) In some ways even more dramatic, because it goes to the heart of what one ordinarily thinks of as a basic attribute of government, is the possibility that the civil justice system in San Francisco will be functionally shut down because of drastic cuts in the judiciary’s budget.

The U.S. government shut down briefly but notably in 1995, as the result of seemingly irreconcilable differences between then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and President Clinton. Another shutdown in December . . .

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