Recently, I had cause to review the New Hampshire State Constitution, and in the course of that, i started thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong about how various states operate. I figured it might be fun to work out some of my ideas, toss them out, and see what people think.
(A brief disclaimer: I have repeatedly described myself as a militant moderate and independent, with libertarian and contrarian leanings. There is a strong element of libertarianism below, a solid espousing of “that governs best which governs least.” If you find that sort of attitude offensive, you really, REALLY won’t like what I have to say here.)
1) The right to revolution must be enshrined. Its mere existence pretty much guarantees that it will never be invoked, but it serves as a constant reminder that the government governs solely through the consent of the governed, and that consent must never be taken for granted. I won’t go quite so far as Alan Moore said in “V For Vendetta,” that “citizens should not fear their government — government should fear its citizens,” but it’s along the right vein.
Purely as a bit of gratuitous braggadocio, simply because I can, I’m going to reprint Section 1, Article 10 of the New Hampshire State Constitution, with emphasis added:
Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.
(DAMN, I love reading that.)
2) No arbitrary term limits for elected officials. People tend to get the government they deserve. If they want to keep re-electing the same idiots over and over again (paging Senator Kennedy), so be it. Let them pay the price for their own futility. Term limits always struck me as a sign of weakness in the electorate — “please keep me from voting for the same idiots over and over again!” — and I never believed in protecting people from their own stupid decisions.
3) An initiative process, where the voters can directly enact or strike down laws, that cannot be short-circuited by the legislature. In Massachusetts, the people have several times managed to put major issues (such as tax cuts) directly on the ballot and passed it over the staunch resistance of the established political and bureaucratic forces, only to see the legislature just up and ignore it. In some cases, they deliberately misinterpret the measure. In others, they just didn’t bother to pass any funding to enact the measure. And in some, they just refused to acknowledge that the measure had been passed. If the peole believe in an issue so strongly that they get the petitions together, collect enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot, and actually win its passage, then by God it ought to BECOME law.
4) Likewise, there should be a way for the people to pass Constitutional amendments without having to go through the Legislature. Again in Massachusetts, the people have put up several Constitutional amendments, only to see the Legislature (through a Constitutional convention) just arbitrarily kill them each and every time. I have no problems with the Legislature being a part of the amendment process, but there should be more than one path to that goal — and one of them should NOT go through them. Make it difficult if you like — require a very high number of signatures on petitions, require a supermajority at the ballot, and so on — but do NOT give the Legislature the power to kill public initiatives.
5) Legislators should NOT be paid a living wage. Public service should be a sacrifice, not a career. In Massachusetts, their lawmakers make a good $40,000 or more (I don’t have the precise figures, but I think it starts around $47,000/year or so), with bonuses, extra pay, and the like. It almost seems like they feel they have to justify their pay by passing more and more laws every year, and raise more and more money through taxes.
Here in New Hampshire, we pay our legislators $100 per year. That’s right, One Hundred Dollars. Per Year. Plus mileage and a few other things, but not one of the 400 members of our House or our 24 Senators is a full-time legislator. They all have real jobs or are independently wealthy, which means that most of them are intimately familiar with living like a normal person. They can’t get together and decide to jack up their pay or raise taxes because most of them will end up having to PAY those taxes, and those that don’t will have to face those that will on a daily basis.
Of course, our Governor and Executive Councilors all get paid a bit more. The councilors make a bit over $12,500 per year, and the Governor a bit over $100,000 per year. But we don’t WANT a full-time legislature; we don’t think there’s enough work in making and un-making laws to justify it. And I think that’s right.
6) No lifetime appointments for judges. Perhaps a ten-year term, long enough so that they cannot possibly know which party will hold sway when they are up for renomination, will keep their minds on their duties and not their own agendas. Maybe even make their renomination contingent on a submajority vote, perhaps only a third of the legislature, would be needed to keep them in office. The idea is that to apply some minimal accountability to judges, not so much as to impair their independence, but to provide some slight limits on their lifetime tenure. If they have to keep at least one-third of the legislature happy every ten years would, in my opinion, help prevent courts like the Ninth
Circus Circuit on the federal bench.
OK, there are half a dozen ideas on state governance, garnered from years of observing New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I don’t think they would translate well on the federal level, but it might be interesting to try out a few of these principles.