10 November 2008

Citizen Initiatives are anti-Constitutional

Constitutions are foundational documents, both figuratively - they provide a framework upon which all other laws can stand - and literally - they define the principles on which governments are founded. In some cases, e.g. the Magna Carta, they come into being after the government, but in most they precede or coincide with its formation.

The purposes of constitutions are clearly delineated:

  • Establish the structure of the government, laying out the separation of power and the roles of each actor.
  • Establish the ways in the which the government is *constituted* in terms of the means of ascension and/or election, the length of terms, and the rules of transition.
  • Establish the framework for enacting and enforcing laws.
  • Establish a means of being modified (this is not a requirement, but has been considered de rigeur for the past 300 or so years.)
  • Enumerate the responsibilities of the units that constitute the government. In the case of a state constitution, those units are citizens. In the case of our federal constitution: semi-independent republics. In the case of the European Union: fully sovereign nations.
There can be more, but generally if you learned about it from Schoolhouse Rock, it's in the Constitution. So for example, our federal constitution explains how a bill becomes law, how an amendment is passed, what the branches of government are, and their respective duties and obligations.

The Constitution of the United States is not particularly long. Without running a word count, I still feel safe guessing that its total length is less that the earmark that set aside money for the Bridge to Nowhere. Its simplicity is a strength, though it leads to much debate over original intent. Interestingly, little debate occurs over the non-amended portions of the document. As a blueprint, it is remarkably concise.

And then you go out west. People - mostly people from the western US - like to talk about America's frontier spirit, how it was founded by hard men who carved out a life in inhospitable conditions. They wax poetic about the noble spirit of the cowboy or the prospector or the trapper and look with disdain on citified dandies. But the founders of our nation - the ones in the powdered wigs and pantyhose - were citified dandies who valued debate, compromise, intelligent discourse, and deliberation. John Adams was not a frontiersman. Thomas Jefferson wasn't out skinning bears. Alexander Hamilton wasn't panning for gold. He farmed and debated. He farmed, invented, and debated. He argued law, and when he wasn't debating in court he debated.

These were smart, thoughtful, inquisitive men who founded our nation and wrote our constituting document after years of discussion and debate.

If you look at it, it's just what I said above. It lays out a framework on which our government rests and onto which laws can be enacted. That's all it does. Even note the Bill of Rights - a wonderful gift from the Virginians, thank you Jemmy Madison. It is NOT part of the foundational document. It is rather a set of amendments added on like an attached garage. By adding them to the Constitution, they ensured their power and longevity; they were definitely more than mere laws. But, by making them a clear addendum, they made the purpose and function of the Constitution crystal clear.

And then you go out west. Hardscrabble people, carving life, inhospitable conditions, right? Cowboys, prospectors, trappers, etc. So what do they do? They put together these idiotic Constitutions where the delineation between foundational function, amended right, and common law is so blurry as to be nearly invisible. Instead of enacting laws, they change their foundational documents willy-nilly.

Citizen initiatives - really initiatives written by special interest groups with deep pockets - constantly and regularly change state constitutions with little credence given to debate or deliberation. These foundations are fragile and haphazard to begin with; with all these rapid, ill-considered changes they become unsupportable.

And like baggy pants, the jetstream, and Pinkberry, political fashions in our country travel east. Over time, the foolishness that grips our frontier will infect the east completely, throwing out centuries of cautious conservatism for mob populism. The people (again, read: deep-pocketed special interests) will decide one day that our hoary old Constitution doesn't respond to the will of the people. Billions will be spent to enact one last amendment on her death bed: a change to the amendment process.

Gone will be the 2/3 vote and 3/5 of the states. In its place will be the same 50-50 lotteries in place in so many of our states.

Gone will be the slow, careful, thoughtful change of the fundamental law of the land. In its place will be the same Biggest War Chest Wins mentality of our states.

Gone will be what our founders fought and died for. In its place will be...well, not America.


tjonsek said...

You are a wonderful writer. Great blend of humor (School House Rock) and poetical waxing.

You are also correct, in my humble opinion. Citizen initiatives are dangerous. And comparing the federal constitution with those of state constitutions is a fair comparison. They (state) are usually crappy documents with none of the eloquence/simplicity of the U.S. constitution.

If only I could write as well. :)

R.A. Porter said...

That's very nice of you to say, especially as I didn't feel I'd given this piece nearly the time and polish I'd wanted.

Ugh. That's been a common theme for me for *everything* I've written since I polished off my last spec. I keep writing this quickie, short pieces and not giving them the attention they deserve, all while dithering and delaying getting into the spec pilot I need to start. Apparently, I need a swift kick to the head.

tjonsek said...

I can relate. It's much easier for me to bitch on my blog than to give time for my other writing. There's a voice in my head reminding me I have other goals to achieve every time I log on twitter or post some dribble on my blog.

I've made a promise tonight to avoid twitter and write something real. Let's see how well I keep that promise.