A New Bill of Rights and Responsibilities

Time is the great equalizer of human worth because we all have the same amount each day, and none of us knows how many days we have left. John I.

I believe the best hope for reestablishing a consensus of the governed might be through widespread public participation in the process of amending the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution was meant to be a “living document.” Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution describes the process by which the Constitution is to be amended. It is basically a process of consensus.


Constitutional amendments must be proposed by two-thirds majorities of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Alternatively, two-thirds of the state Legislators could call a “Convention for proposing amendments.” Amendments proposed by either process must then be ratified or approved by three-fourths of the States to become part of the Constitution. The consensus need not be unanimous, but an amendment cannot successfully complete this process unless it represents a general consensus of the American people. That was the clear intention of the founders.


I believe the best hope for restoring the “just power” of our government might be a single constitutional amendment that explicitly defines multiple constitutional rights and accompanying responsibilities. The 14th Amendment provided a precedent by including a number of “citizenship rights” that needed to be redefined following the Civil War. A peremptory amendment prohibiting corporate participation in political processes would be essential to prevent corporate corruption of the amendment process. The current “Move to Amend” initiative could achieve this purpose.


My suggestion is a composite or collective amendment that addresses a range of divisive issues covering concerns of both the political Right and Left. My proposed list would include: abortion, gun control, public prayer, health care, public education, environmental health, economic necessities, and equal rights for future generations. Current initiatives are already underway for many if not all of these areas of concern. However, none of the current individual initiatives will likely succeed because they are addressing individual issues for which there is no current consensus across the spectrum of American values. By bringing all of the significant initiatives to amend the Constitution together into a single amendment, and working toward a collective consensus, initiatives that had no chance of succeeding separately would have a far better chance of succeeding collectively.


I believe the composite amendment would also need to include a constitutional responsibility to accompany each constitutional right, if it is to be acceptable to most Americans. For example, a right to basic economic needs might be accompanied by a responsibility to perform equivalent useful public services—not simply “make-work” bureaucratic requirements. The services would need to be of value to society, even if not of significant economic value. Many things essential to the well-being of families, communities, and society have little if any economic value. A commitment of the recipient’s time might be considered equivalent in economic value to the value received by typical local workers for an equal amount of time. Time is the great equalizer of human worth because we all have the same amount each day and none of us knows how many days we have left. (I have discussed this overall proposal in some detail in my book, A Revolution of the Middle.)


Local or community-level administration of such rights and responsibilities would be essential for this approach to work. Alex de Tocqueville, who was quoted extensively in the previous Common Ground blog, believed the decentralization and localization of government authority had been critical to the success of early American democracy. Federal and state laws were administered in large part within local communities. Local administrators of laws and regulations were respected as responsible representatives of the people in general rather than the government’s enforcers of federal laws. The local township was the central focus of formal government administration in early America. There was no sense that a big government was imposing its will on the people. The people were simply using their local government to enforce their consent to be governed. They were pursuing their "self-interest rightly understood."


The extended national discussion necessary for approval of such a composite amendment would provide a forum for reflection and public input on a wide diversity of issues spanning the spectrum of contemporary American values. Advocates for each individual right and responsibility would need to consider the necessity of its acceptance, if not complete agreement, by previous opponents of similar proposals. If no consensus of even conditional acceptance emerged from extended discussions of a particular issue, it would not be included in the proposed amendment. There would be no logical purpose for proposing an amendment with a specific right or responsibility that doomed it to public rejection.


This process would be fundamentally different from a national constitutional convention. A constitutional convention, by its very nature, would include a limited number of people chosen through some political process. A constitutional convention could result in a complete rewrite of the Constitution that would then be presented for ratification. Instead, the composite amendment could be strictly limited by its organizers and facilitators to defining a set of constitutional rights and responsibilities. The entire U.S. population could be asked to participate in the process of consensus regarding rights and responsibilities to be included in the composite amendment. The process could be extended over several years, if necessary—until the amendment has sufficient public approval to be proposed by Congress.


The composite amendment eventually would need to be acceptable to at least two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures. However, if its presentation to Congress follows a true national consensus-building process, any initial legislative rejection could be reversed following the next general election. The entire process might take a decade or longer to reach the broad, public consensus necessary for its official proposal and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Restoring the just power of government will not be a quick or easy process, but is nonetheless essential to the integrity of our democracy. The ultimate objective would be to create a single constitutional amendment that eventually would become the New Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.


John Ikerd