Reassessing the Constitution. After 200 years, time for some changes?
Washington — FROM elementary school on, Americans are taught to revere the Constitution as a nearly sacred document, created by men of genius in Philadelphia in 1787. But as the Constitution's 200th anniversary approaches (September 1987), a small, influential group of politicians, former government officials, scholars, and researchers are looking not only at the document's virtues but also at what they see as its flaws. They have begun a reassessment of the Constitution to determine if fundamental change may be necessary in an era of what, in their view, is a stalemated and divided government.
``Our point is [that] we should not just be worshiping the Constitution, but we should be analyzing it as the framers would have done,'' says Lloyd N. Cutler, co-chairman of the Committee on the Constitutional System. ``We're aiming toward 1987, because the nation's focus will be on the Constitution then.''
Mr. Cutler, a Washington attorney, was President Carter's counsel. One of his co-chairmen, C. Douglas Dillon, was secretary of the Treasury in the Kennedy administration; the other is Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas.
They are leading a group that has tangled with the federal government and believe they have seen its deficiencies. They include former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former Sen. J. William Fulbright, former Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman, and former House minority leader John Rhodes. The group also includes state and local leaders, law professors, government and history scholars, and think-tank researchers.
They all agree on one thing: The separation of power between Congress and the president has become so intense that little can be accomplished. The president can rarely muster a majority in Congress to go along with his programs. The people elect a president because of what he says he will do. Then they elect a Congress that won't support him.
The end result, they say, is that American policy, both domestic and foreign, becomes fragmented, and no one can be held responsible for it. They cite United States policy toward Nicaragua, for example, which has been pulled in opposite directions by a Democrat-controlled House and the Republican President.
But even more dangerous, say committee members, is that the government is being buried in a pile of deficits, and no one can exert enough leadership to find a solution.
James L. Sundquist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that the election of House members every two years means Congress either must rush through programs or have them defeated by minority interests in the final weeks of a session.
``While we tend to agree on the analysis of the paralysis,'' Cutler says, ``ideas go all over the lot on how to solve it.'' Among constitutional amendments under discussion are two modeled after European parliamentary systems -- permitting appointment of senators and congressmen to Cabinet seats without forcing them to give up their legislative seats, and allowing a president or Congress to call for new elections if the government appears to be hopelessly deadlocked or the president appears incapable of
Others have been proposed many times in the past: four-year terms for representatives instead of two, and eight-year terms for senators instead of six; reducing the Senate majority needed for treaty ratification from two-thirds to 60 percent; and a presidential line-item veto on appropriations bills, which President Reagan has already asked for.
Not all of the changes would have to be accomplished by constitutional amendment, Cutler said. Many that would strengthen the ties between the president and Congress could be made by altering party rules or enacting federal laws. ``Some of it will mean undoing party reforms that have evolved over the past 40 years that have reduced the power of the party,'' he says. ``The politicians should be given much more power in selecting the presidential candidates so that they feel more loyalty to him and he feels more loyalty to the party.''
Since the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, only 16 amendments have been approved in nearly 200 years. Only two of those -- direct election of senators and limiting the president to two terms -- had anything to do with how the government operates.
In 200 years, no amendment has passed that changed the basic structure of the federal government or the relationship of checks and balances among the branches.
Opponents to change argue that the relatively slow pace of government is an advantage, as it requires a national consensus before anything is approved. A government that can act too quickly can do as much harm as good, they contend. The country has prospered for 200 years under this system, they say, so why change it?
While Sundquist and Cutler agree that achieving changes will be difficult, they say an alternative must be prepared in the event a crisis develops and public opinion turns against the Constitution.
And perhaps, they say, a consensus will grow among the people who deal daily with the inefficiencies of government to make a change before a crisis hits.