Taking Another Look At The Constitutional Blueprint

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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

Rethink the War Powers Clause

The change I would most like to see is not in the text of the Constitution but in the strict construction of the war powers clause (Article I, Section 8), which confers on Congress alone the power to declare war. Fidelity to the letter of this important constitutional provision might prevent unilateral executive decisions and actions that since the 1950s (and despite the War Powers Act of 1973) have allowed the President to initiate and to wage war without congressional approval.

-Jacob E. Cooke John Henry MacCracken Professor of History, Lafayette College.

Perhaps it is an impossible task, but I believe it would be very useful to try and clarify the so-called war powers—especially the power to “declare” war. The ability to commit United States forces in combat has proved to be a troublesome problem. The question had quite different dimensions in the eighteenth century, when months could pass before military engagements were communicated to the capital. With instant communications and the ability to control military engagements more precisely, the issue has new urgency. The 1973 War Powers Resolution has been treated cavalierly by Presidents and Congress alike, and it is perhaps a clumsy compromise. But it was a remedy for this gap in the Constitution; and I think another effort to deal with the situation is in order.

-Roger H. Davidson Senior Specialist in American Government and Public Administration, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

Congress already has the power to raise armies, declare war, ratify treaties or to refuse to do so, but increasingly it abdicates its negative power when the flags are flying. The result is that strong Presidents are “imperial” and weak ones leave a vacuum of leadership. At the least I’d require the President to answer questions in Congress on a regular basis, and going on from there I’d set a time limit on executive agreements without congressional ratification, and I would most surely limit executive privilege to personnel matters. I know the arguments about the need for a unified and discreet leadership that only the executive can provide in war and diplomacy, but after years of foreign and military adventures led by autocratic dissemblers in the White House, I’m willing to risk a period of policy making by consensus among 535 careless talkers.

-Bernard A. Weisberger Historian and author.

Whose Right to Bear Arms?

I hope the Second Amendment (1791) could be rephrased or redefined. This amendment has been used falsely by the gun lobby and gun owners to justify the barely controlled purchase and retention of deadly weapons. My point is this: The so-called right to bear arms is not an absolute right. What must be clarified and emphasized is the first part of the sentence—that the only reason given in the Second Amendment for bearing arms is to sustain “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” Handguns, Saturday Night Specials, sawed-off shotguns, and all the other concealed weapons have nothing whatsoever to do with a militia or national security. They should be banned—under the very clear language of the Second Amendment.

-Herbert Mitgang Journalist and author of, most recently, the novel Get These Men Out of the Hot Sun.

Pass the Equal Rights Amendment

The single change needed is the Equal Rights Amendment. The Constitution is a moral testament of intentions as well as the guide for law, and therefore this assertion of equal rights is necessary.

-Bertram Wyatt-Brown Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History, University of Florida, Gainesville.

I would like to see the ERA amendment added to the Constitution.

-Marietta Tree City planner, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.