The Public Check on Congress
A non-partisan proposal for a Constitutional amendment to align the actions of Congress with America’s national interests.
The more you read about our political system and reflect upon the modern era of dysfunction, the better you will understand the background behind the proposal for The Public Check on Congress and, I hope, the more likely you will be to support it. I suggest these readings not because I agree with all of them, but because they all add something to a layperson’s understanding of this problem. Let me know through the blog or e-mail if you have other suggestions.
The Constitution of the United States, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, R. Morris, G. Morris, C. C. Pinckney, C. Pinckney, et. al. You should keep a copy available for reference as you think through the options for fixing the political system it established. A copy of the Declaration of Independence would be useful as well.
The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, Edwin Meese III, Matthew Spalding, David Forte, editors, 2005. A comprehensive guide to the meaning of the Constitution, clause by clause, as “originally intended” by the framers, as interpreted through legal precedents, and as applied in contemporary practice. Essays by more than a hundred eminent constitutional scholars are included.
The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, Linda R. Monk. 2003. A more layman-friendly analysis of the Constitution, clause by clause.
The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1768-1789, Robert Middlekauff. 2007. You need to start somewhere in developing an understanding of the background leading up to the formation of our constitutional government. This book is among the best – part of the outstanding Oxford University Press series on American history.
Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, Richard Beeman. 2010. There are several good accounts of the actual proceedings of the Constitutional Convention. They all rely heavily on the notes taken by James Madison. Compromises were sometimes painful. No one was completely satisfied with the final product, but after four hot summer months in Philadelphia, most thought it was good enough and time was running out on the Articles of Confederation.
The Federalist Papers, Publius (pen name for James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.) I read the volume introduced by historian Garry Wills first published in 1982. Often called the greatest political manifesto of human history, these 85 essays were written over the course of several months to persuade the New York ratification convention to adopt the Constitution. They are much quoted these days – I quote one of them myself on my home page.
Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788, Pauline Maier. A quite recent book on the process by which the thirteen states approved the Constitution. It allows you to assess the arguments both for and against the Constitution. One is left with the following question: While history has convinced us that those in favor had the better arguments, would the Constitution have been ratified if they did not also have the more clever tactics?
The Last of the Fathers: James Madison & the Republican Legacy, Drew R. McCoy. No one will dispute you if you call James Madison the Father of the Constitution. He was a prime mover behind the call for a convention. His research on what we would call today the “best practices” of previous democracies going all the way back to antiquity, along with clear thinking on the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, positioned him to develop the blueprint from which the Constitutional conventioneers worked. He labored tirelessly during the convention and then throughout the ratification effort. And, of course, he became the fourth American to take the Presidential oath to “preserve, protect and defend” it. This book about his later life shows us why Madison, more than any other framer, was convinced that, with the right care by future generations, our Constitutional government could last centuries rather than decades.
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville. A fascinating outsider’s look at American democracy as it quickened during the age of Jackson.
Problems with our National Government
The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, 2008. Perhaps the most cited and comprehensive analysis of the shortcomings of Congress. The authors represent two premiere think tanks, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, respectively.
The Dysfunctional Congress?: The Individual Roots of an Institutional Dilemma, Kenneth R. Mayer and David T. Canon. 1999. A scholarly treatise by two academics provides helpful insights into the factors contributing to the problems of Congress.
Americans, Congress, and Democratic Responsiveness: Public Evaluations of Congress and Electoral Consequences, David R. Jones and Monika L. McDermott. 2010. Lots of statistics behind this analysis of the connection between Congress and constituents.
The Ultimate Constitutional Fix – A Second Convention
A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country, Larry J. Sabato. 2008. A renowned political scientist looks at how we might overhaul the Constitution if we could muster the political will to approach it comprehensively.
Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong and How We the People Can Correct It, Sanford Levinson. 2008. A pre-eminent legal scholar makes an impassioned case for a Constitutional convention to address a broad range of opportunities for improvement.
We the People, or We the Polarized?
Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Morris P. Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope. 2010. This is an enormously important subject. It dictates what we can expect from our democracy, e.g., whether each of us must join sides to be counted, and whether previously common values become a quaint historical footnote. I, for one, do not believe that we are as polarized as we are so frequently told and this book, by a renowned political scientist and his team backs up that conviction.
The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization & American Democracy, Alan I. Abramowitz. 2010. This is another side of the argument. A highly respected political scientist makes the case that, in America today, the most politically engaged citizens tend to be at the left or right extreme of the political continuum. Those at the center, for the most part, abstain from playing an active role in driving policy outcomes. The result is a polarized rivalry for political power.
The New American Story, Bill Bradley. 2008. A principled team player if ever the Senate had one, Bradley provides his take on the sorry dynamics of Washington politics over the years, and how we can develop a common agenda for tackling tough issues.
Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War that is Destroying America, Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel. 2007. An interesting account by two journalists, one a liberal and the other a conservative, who admit that, for many years, they contributed to the effort to convince Americans that we are a polarized people. In this book, they come together to strip away the many myths and hypocrisies of those voices and show us that there is indeed a great deal of common ground.
Miscellaneous (Links to online websites included where available)
I referred in one of my FAQ answers to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process for finding solutions to tough, complex issues. Here are two interesting articles by a University of Wisconsin political scientist on this subject:
“Closing Military Bases (Finally): Solving Collective Dilemmas Through Delegation,” Kenneth R. Mayer,. 1995. http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/kmayer/Professional/Closing%20Military%20Bases%20(Finally).pdf
“The Base Realignment and Closure Process: Is It possible to Make Rational Policy?,” Kenneth R. Mayer. 2007. http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/kmayer/Professional/Base%20Realignment%20and%20Closure%20Process.pdf
There are many think tank and foundation papers on the subject of dysfunctional government. I found the following transcript of a Brookings Institution conference on broken government particularly worthwhile, especially the second part, the Panel on Governance Reform, beginning on page 53 which addresses more directly issues related to Congress:
“Is Government Broken? Strengthening Democracy through Election and Government Reforms,” Brookings Institution, June, 1, 2010.
The following article on criteria for determining whether the amendment process is appropriate for a given reform is quite helpful:
“‘Great and Extraordinary Occasions’: Developing Guidelines for Constitutional Change,” The Century Foundation, 1999, http://www.constitutionproject.org/pdf/32.pdf
Here is a website with access to many documents relating to constitutional issues.
“The Founder’s Constitution”. A joint venture of the University of Chicago Press and the Liberty Fund. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/tocs/toc.html
Here are two pamphlets which deal with the broadest of questions such as What is the purpose of a political system?” And “How have democracies evolved over the millennia?”
Politics, A Very Short Introduction, Kenneth Minoque. 1995.
Democracy, A Very Short Introduction, Berhard Crick. 2002.
These are part of the Very Short Introduction series of the Oxford University Press.
Another book, often used by students in an early political science class to address the most fundamental issues:
Political Thinking, The Perennial Questions, Glenn Tinder, 6th edition. 1995.
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