Mehring: A Constitutional Crisis

Is our government broken? If the question sounds dramatic, allow me to elucidate.

The most recently adjourned Congressional body, steeped in fringe politics and partisan interests, could barely perform its most fundamental civic duty of voting on and passing laws. It was the most inefficient and unproductive Congress ever, compromising the least to consider the fewest bills, while enacting even fewer many of which were routine or mundane matters like reapproving administrative procedures or formally naming post offices. Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service hangs on the brink of bankruptcy.

A Senate that is constitutionally sanctioned to form its own rules and procedures has embraced obstructionism to influence lawmaking in the form of the filibuster. So long as someone keeps talking and boy do these senators ever love to hear themselves talk no one has to worry about actually passing laws. The Senate does not have to do its job.

Congress allegedly serves ordinary citizens in matters of law, but our representatives have focused mostly on promoting themselves, kowtowing to deep pockets and special interests in a perpetual effort to stay in office. Lobbying has become a $3 billion-a-year industry with a revolving door plainly situated between the public and private sectors.

Even if a cabal of billionaires were ultimately unable to purchase the presidency for their fanatical free-market darling, it is no less assuring that President Barack Obama's greatest financial supporters including Hollywood and the banking industry benefited from considerable tax breaks embedded in the recent band-aid legislation addressing the fiscal cliff. Meanwhile, taxes increased for just about everyone, while essentially nothing was done to curb an unsustainable, decade-long federal spending spree. (Congress says they will sort all that out in two months. What reason could we possibly have not to believe them?)

Tax breaks for corporations are one thing, but exoneration for clear criminal activity is another entirely. I could face life in prison for distributing cocaine just once at Dartmouth. British bank HSBC knowingly helped Mexican drug cartels launder billions of dollars through the U.S. banking system over the course of a decade. The Department of Justice slapped the bank with a hefty fine but refused to pursue criminal charges, citing fears of destabilizing the global financial system. First they were too big to fail. Now they are too big to jail.

While innocent moviegoers and schoolchildren are gunned down, our nation defers to a vaguely-worded passage in a 200-year-old document, as if our nation's founders had prophesized the development and proliferation of lethally accurate, high-powered hunting rifles when crafting the Bill of Rights. A similarly reflexive concession to the preceding amendment prompted our most powerful judicial body to sanction unlimited, anonymous campaign donations and to defend the Westboro Baptist Church's hateful spew over the privacy and respect of fallen soldiers.

If our legislative framework is failing us, Constitutional chicanery has often served as our primary mode of societal progress. The federal government was entirely powerless against nefarious private interests until it used a liberal reading of the commerce and elastic clauses to justify an expansion of powers. And while we surely require a formal framework to organize an American polity, maybe it's time, after more than two centuries, that we reevaluate or even renovate that framework. Maybe instead of jury-rigging legal arguments to stay in line with some constitutional precedent, we need to reconsider the Constitution itself.

I acknowledge that mine is an audacious suggestion. To be clear, I fully appreciate the ingenuity of our Founders' creation and do not propose a complete overhaul. But the idea that the social, cultural and political environment in which our Constitution was created would yield solutions that remain eternally relevant in an increasingly complex and interconnected world is absurd. The Founders may have known this Article V allows for the ratification of individual constitutional amendments and more radically, the formation of a Constitutional Convention to propose and enact multiple amendments at once.

The need for such a convention and a comprehensive reformulation of a systemically problematic political system is inevitable. That may come two or two thousand years in the future, but in light of recent events, the conversation is warranted right now.

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