Amending the Future of the Constitution

Times Staff Writer

What this country needs is a lot more old-time, back-slapping, glad-handing politicians and a lot less political reform.

That’s the opinion of James MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Democratic Party stalwart, who believes that “a little election rigging and a little corruption” may be the necessary grease for democracy’s gears.

Burns also wouldn’t mind amending the Constitution to make it easier to impeach Presidents and let members of Congress serve on the Cabinet without giving up their elected offices.

Those are some of the ideas Burns tossed out the other night as he delivered a lecture at Pomona College to observe the approach of the U.S. Constitution’s bicentennial. His appearance was the final event in the Douglas Adair Symposia, an “early celebration” of the bicentennial at Pomona College and Cal Poly Pomona. Burns himself is co-chairman of Project 87, an effort to encourage public dialogue on the Constitution next year.


The way Burns sees it, political reform movements have virtually destroyed the system of party politics in this country.

“In the United States, in this century particularly, we have worked out the most marvelous and dubious method of evading and delaying compromises implicit in the Constitution of checks and balances,” he said. " . . . What we have done is to dump power into the presidency, not so much because he has wanted it but because we have wanted him to have it. . . . Practically nobody seems to question a President who takes warlike actions, whether it’s a few days ago, or over the last 10 or 20 years, except when things go wrong.”

The Biggest Problem

Selecting candidates through primaries has perhaps been the biggest blow to the parties, Burns said, “destroying the very heart of the party system by taking from the party its most crucial function, the nominating function.”


The 68-year-old historian--whose latest book, “The Workshop of Democracy,” is the second volume of a trilogy about American political and intellectual history--particularly lamented the rise of reform movements in California around the turn of the century.

National Trend

Reformers based in this state started a national trend of “adopting lots of laws that limited good party politicians going about their daily rounds of patronage and perhaps a little election rigging and a little corruption,” which “throttled, in my view, the democratic impulse of the party system.”

The party system “did not work perfectly, any more than the first Constitution did,” Burns said. “But what it did was to bring about a great broadening of democracy in this country.”

Today, Burns declared, the party system has “collapsed” and has been replaced by a “low-voltage political system,” which is ignored by almost half of the voting population.

Lack of Accountability

A major reason voters are turned off, he said, is the “absence of what I think is perhaps the most crucial value in the mechanics of democracy . . . and that is responsibility or accountability, the capacity of people to put their finger on who should get the credit or discredit for what’s happening in the country.”

To counter what he sees as political gridlock, Burns offered four “modest proposals” that he said were meant to be provocative rather than practical.


First, he said, the Constitution should be amended to strengthen the impeachment power, which is now limited to use only for malfeasance of office.

“But what about cases where Presidents have hopelessly lost the confidence of the people, or other grave aspects of presidential crisis?” Burns asked. “Should we not have some power to deal with really horrendous situations. I’m not talking about simply disagreeing with the President. I’m talking about situations where the safety of the Republic and the leadership of the nation are greatly imperiled. . . . “

Second, Burns advocated “a rather modest reform in our electoral system"--lengthening the terms of U.S. representatives from two to four years.

A Weakness in Congress

“The midterm election, at least in my view, is one of the weakest aspects of our political system,” he said. “It is a really low-voltage election that tends to be very localistic in character, that tends almost always to go against a President no matter how well he may have done and in my view makes it impossible for a team of people to establish a record and then come back before the electorate.”

Third, Burns recommended that “we permit the President under the Constitution to select members of Congress for the Cabinet without having to give up their seats.” Such a change, Burns said, would graft an aspect of the British parliamentary system onto American government and add “a wonderfully strengthening character” to the executive branch of government.

Finally, Burns proposed the return of straight-ticket voting. This proposal would attract the voter, as it did in the past, “who might not know very much about the candidates, who might be an immigrant and simply knows perhaps that the Democratic (party) was the party that catered to his needs or perhaps the young businessman who didn’t know much about politics but felt that the Republican party was the party of Horatio Alger Jr. and all the rest.”

The demise of straight-ticket voting was due to attacks “by the reformers because they wanted people to be able to pick and choose, pick and choose the good guys on both sides,” Burns said. “But I think something was lost when that kind of direct expression of political teamwork was lost.”


Burns said that although he reveres the Constitution, he thinks that “if we are really to honor what the framers did, we must be willing to do what they did, to stand back from the existing political system, to look at it in terms of future possibilities, to be able to think daringly and perhaps act daringly as we try to put our constitutional house in order.”

In a rebuttal, Robert Dawidoff, associate professor of history at the Claremont Graduate School, warned against hasty revision of the Constitution.

“At any moment in the national life,” Dawidoff said, “the Constitution encourages improvement and at the same time it discourages too many sacrifices of basic goods like liberty in even the most pressing emergencies. . . . The Constitution is at its most characteristic when some pressing course of action is slowed and stymied and compromised and even ruined. If the Declaration (of Independence) is the child of the body politic, the Constitution was always gray with age. . . . It was written in the cynical conviction that power corrupts and that the best way to limit the inevitable corruption was to confuse, that is to divide the power.”