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Taking Another Look At The Constitutional Blueprint
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
In countries where linguistic unity has broken down, hostility, prejudice, and resentment persist and even worsen, despite the adoption of two official languages. With our cultural pluralism, how many languages would have to become official after a second one had been chosen?
Jacques Barzun Author and past President of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
The Constitution provides that each House shall be the judge of its own elections and of the qualifications of its own members. Any candidate for membership in either House who himself, or through his supporters, spends more than a specifically limited number of dollars on his election should be considered disqualified for membership in either House.
Henry Steele Commager Professor Emeritus and John W. Simpson Lecturer, Amherst College.
I would favor a constitutional amendment permitting the President not only to choose members of his cabinet or top executive officers from the Senate or House, but allowing those appointees to retain their seats in Congress. This not only would draw the President and Congress into somewhat closer teamwork, but would serve as a stabilizing force in the executive and an enhancement of executive leadership in Congress. I doubt that this change in itself would make much difference, and indeed, I doubt that the President would often choose top appointees from Congress, but at least it would be the start of a desirable change in the Constitution.
James MacGregor Burns Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus, Williams College.
In insulating the President from the hurly-burly of Congress, the Founding Fathers inadvertently also made him irresponsible. There is no institutional arrangement whereby the President can be held accountable, on a regular basis, for his actions. The press conference has evolved to fill that gap. But it is a pathetic thing, easily manipulated by an imperious or skillful President. The media, often obsequious and usually intimidated, can only ask questions: they cannot engage in debate. The President, if he wishes, can lock himself up for months and never explain his actions, even if they involve, as they have, leading the country into war, destroying its economy, or overturning its security arrangements.
The parliamentary system has numerous devices for making the executive responsible to the legislature. Most cannot be easily applied to our system. But one can. Every week the British prime minister must appear before Parliament to justify his or her actions in a rough-and-tumble questionand-answer session. The legislators, unlike media reporters, are not afraid of appearing rude or of losing “access.” They can ask the questions and demand the answers that the public has a right to know.
I propose that the Constitution be amended to require the President to appear before a joint session of Congress no less than once a month to answer questions posed to him by the legislature. While this might not lead to better policies, it could at least help counter the corruption of the system resulting from government by public relations.
Ronald Steel Author of Walter Lippmann and the American Century.
I would like to see the Presidency scaled down, or better yet, our system transformed into a ministerial form of government. The presidential form of government, admittedly an American innovation, has outlived its usefulness in a modern democratic polity. Its deliberate separation from political parties and from Congress lies at the root of our parties’ present inability to make effective use of government in addressing economic and social problems.
Carl N. Degler Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University.
Now that Congress has allowed television cameras through its portals, an amendment must be added to the Constitution providing formal access to the floor of the Senate for the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, and the Attorney General. The purpose would be periodically to permit before the public a formal presentation and defense of presidential policies, followed by discussion and debate from the floor. The effect would be to discipline in a salutary way the principal voices of the executive branch and produce a no less desirable disciplining of the Senate as a whole, whose members habitually use the media to criticize administration policies without sufficient political cost or risk to themselves. The Sunday interview programs on the television networks do not answer the nation’s need for arguing out vital issues. My proposed amendment would institutionalize interpellation in the great body where it deserves to take place, and give the process the dignity it requires.
Henry F. Graft Professor of History, Columbia University