Editors Note: In my youth, I played basketball a few nights a week at the Glenville School in Greenwich. One of the guys I knew from there, Peter Mandras, was from my old neighborhood in Byram. Recently, Peter sent me an article about a prospective constitutional amendment that sounds like a good idea. The best ideas come from Byram, so I’m expanding on it here.


Congressional Repair

 

Facebook is filled with all sorts of fatuous nonsense — from fake news emanating from all parts of the political spectrum to silly pseudoscience posted by flat earthers, climate change deniers and creationists. Often, the most enlightening things you’ll see might be cute videos of unlikely animal friends or enticing photos of your Facebook friends’ food.

However, a proposition has recently begun making the rounds that sounds surprisingly sensible — a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Most proposed amendments are silly and pointless. For example, whenever something happens to whip up nationalistic fervor (e.g., 9/11, the Gulf War or kneeling football players), faux patriots inevitably suggest that flag burning be outlawed, even though almost no one ever burns one. This proposition is antithetical to the spirit of free expression, so it’s no wonder the courts typically smack down such blatant assaults on the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, something as misguided as the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) was enacted, then had to be repealed by the 21st Amendment. Later, a proposal as stunningly self-evident as the Equal Rights Amendment, which should have been a “no-brainer” in a democracy, was scuttled by conservatives and evangelical Christians, who took literally the notion that all “men” are created equal.

Although the Constitution is a living document, the framers purposefully designed it to be difficult to alter. Since ratification in 1788, thousands of amendments have been considered; however, only 27 have been approved. It wasn’t meant to remain frozen in the 18th century, but the Founding Fathers must have realized that such a well-thought-out framework demands the arduous amendment process set forth in Article V.

Amendments must be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, or by a constitutional convention convened by two-thirds of the state legislatures. The latter has never happened (all 27 amendments have been proposed by Congress), but, in either case, a three-fourths majority of the state legislatures (or conventions) is required to ratify.

Of course, almost everyone, including those who call themselves “strict constructionists,” has a pet cause. Many liberals consider Article I, Section 3 — which gives the 37 people and 2,500 prairie dogs living in North Dakota the same number of senators as the 40 million residents of California — an affront to democracy. Meanwhile, many far-right-wingers (including the John Birch Society and the ultraconservative Koch brothers) would love to see the 17th Amendment repealed. This altered Article I to mandate the election of senators by the citizens of the states, rather than by their state legislatures.

But I digress. Stated simply, the 28th Amendment would not allow Congress to make any laws that apply to American citizens that don’t apply equally to the members of Congress. And it would preclude them from making any laws that apply to themselves, but don’t apply to all U.S. citizens. No longer could they exempt themselves from prosecution for sexual harassment or from the healthcare reform they pass for the rest of the country. They couldn’t retire at full pay after just one term, and their children would be required to pay back their college loans, just like everyone else.

This amendment would move the congressional retirement fund into the Social Security system, in which representatives would participate like ordinary citizens. And legislators could no longer vote their own pay raises. Instead, they’d receive 3.0% annually or the Consumer Price Index (CPI), whichever is lower. And they’d receive no pay after leaving office, so they’d go back to being ordinary working stiffs, like the rest of us.

Because an inordinately large percentage of our representatives are millionaires, most wouldn’t be hurt all that much by this amendment. However, the goal is not to penalize anyone, but to promote equality — to at least pay lip service to the notion that our politicians should be citizen legislators, not a bunch of elitists using outrageous perks to line their own pockets at taxpayer expense. And this is the ideal time for such a change.

Americans on both the Right and the Left rightfully hate Congress (71% disapproval in the RealClearPolitics poll) even more than our rightfully unpopular president (56% disapproval). If the recent 35-day government shutdown proved anything, it’s that politicians care more about scoring partisan points than they do about their constituents, especially the 800,000 federal employees victimized by Congress and our chief executive’s aversion to compromise.  

Congress is as likely to drain its swamp by supporting this amendment as a billionaire, born a millionaire, who hires multimillionaires for his administration, would be to drain the executive branch swamp. It’s both stupid and naive to expect oligarchs with power to reduce their own influence by changing a system that provided their advantages.

Hence, passing the 28th Amendment would probably require a constitutional convention. It would takes 38 states to convene one, but 35 governors have already filed suits against the U.S. Congress for passing legislation that imposes burdensome unfunded mandates on their states, so it’s not out of the question.

Perhaps, if we had a less elitist legislative branch, staffed by people who lived by the same rules as the rest of us, we’d be less likely to be duped into voting for a fake-populist, white-supremacist conman who treats his income tax returns as a matter of national security. And maybe we wouldn’t take seriously Starbucks’ Howard Shultz, another egomaniacal billionaire businessman with no governing experience.


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