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Boston — TOM Cronin is tugging hard at the Liberty Bell. As one of the nation's most respected constitutional scholars, he hopes the clear ring will be heard, not only in urban America, but also in homes, churches, town halls, and public squares throughout the nation.
This tall, imposing New England transplant to Colorado - who holds an endowed chair in American government at Colorado College - says the best way to celebrate the nation's bicentennial is to air issues of democratic government in grass-roots America.
Thomas E. Cronin, an authority on the United States presidency, insists that the ongoing festivals to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the US Constitution have placed too much emphasis on the Bill of Rights alone.
He would prefer that the pressing public issues of the day, from the Iran-contra affair to the nuclear freeze to balancing the budget, be debated by citizens in the context of the Constitution. ``In many respects, the Constitutional Convention [of two centuries ago] is still in session,'' Mr. Cronin says. ``The framers did not solve all of our problems; ... [we now need to] discuss some of the issues under stress today.''
Cronin says the ``silences of the Constitution'' and perhaps its ambiguities could form the basis for a present forum. ``The Iran-contra affair, for example, is not a bad one for Americans in any community in the country to sit down and actually go through,'' Cronin says.
In an interview here, he discussed this volatile issue in terms of presidential power and the relations of Congress with the White House.
``We have to recognize that we have set up a system of government that is neither tidy nor efficient ... and that, if a president cannot persuade the other branch of government [Congress] of the validity, legitimacy, and desirability of a given public policy - such as trading with a terrorist nation or giving military aid to the contra rebels in Nicaragua - that the framers of the Constitution believed that inaction, meaning no policy, no activity, was preferable to action,'' he explains.
Cronin adds: ``Now, in the late 20th century, when we have a President Johnson or a Nixon or a Carter or a Reagan saying, `This Congress isn't allowing me to do things I want to do, therefore I'm going to do them through covert operations,' or, `I'm going to do it through undeclared foreign policy with White House aides, CIA agents, and others engaging in things' - but not letting the Congress know and not winning their consent or asking for their advice - I think the framers would say that was wrong.''
Cronin says the headlines coming out of Philadelphia 200 years ago are still the ``big story'' today. The key issue is ``how to reconcile the great dream of self-government embodied through representative systems [with] the necessity for some elements of monarchy which [Alexander] Hamilton so eloquently talks about in the Federalist Papers.
``The framers had great ambivalence towards strong, powerful leadership institutions. They knew that centralized power tends to corrupt, but they also knew that the absence of centralized power leads to downfall.''
Cronin says today's ``living Constitution,'' as in the Founding Fathers' time, has the function of granting, dispersing, and constraining power. But Americans must learn, he says, that ``power in governmental hands can be used for great liberating and emancipating ends, but at the very same time, power can be used to deny individual rights, liberties, and privacy, and invade the very things the American Revolution was fought for.''
One proposal Cronin would like to see debated ``in the hamlets and schoolhouses and churches of America'' is whether the time is right for the formation of a Joint National Security Committee, which would consult with the president and major Cabinet members. ``The pros are that there would be a constituted committee, under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, [which] would be authorized to meet with the president and the secretary of state and secretary of defense with some regularity - but particularly at a time when there was consideration for the intervention of US troops or Air Force strikes in some other nation,'' he says.
``Now there is no duly authorized group that a president really must consult with,'' Cronin points out. The War Powers Resolution, which limits presidential action without congressional consent, is ``vaguely written,'' often ignored by chief executives, and has been narrowed by the US Supreme Court.
Cronin adds, however, that the ``down side'' of appointing a National Security Committee is that necessarily some of the committees of Congress would be left out.
``No matter how you would define the committee of perhaps 15 or 16, there would be some members of Congress who would feel they were being excluded and that they were being denied their proper constitutional function of carrying out the role of `advice and consent,''' he says.
Cronin regards himself as a ``flaming moderate'' - one who embraces progressive ideas but rejects radical change.
For example, he is opposed to most proposals that would alter governmental structure or procedures - such as placing legislators in Cabinet posts, electing the president and congressmen on the same party ticket, and changing the length of service for occupants of the Oval Office.
On the other hand, he has served on a high-level task force, appointed by the Twentieth Century Fund, which advocates a change in the Electoral College system to avert a situation in which a presidential candidate could win the popular vote but lose the election.
``The solution to our problems doesn't lie in structural change,'' Cronin insists. What is needed, he says, is ``better people in government to work out compromises.''
Along with improved political leadership, the constitutional scholar stresses the importance of developing solid ``theories'' - for arms control and economic competition, for example. ``We then need to have the best minds in the country working those strategies and working with those in and out of government who are in positions of leadership,'' he says.
``Ours is a system of persuasion, of bargaining, of coalition-building,'' Cronin adds. ``I don't think that a change in the Constitution at this point is the answer.''