Constitutional Cliffhangers: Final Thoughts on Staying Out of Trouble

My final post about my book, Constitutional Cliffhangers, will deal with fixing and preventing constitutional cliffhangers.

One of my pet peeves is when an article identifies a potential constitutional problem and then concludes blithely that the best solution is just to amend the Constitution. Even passing a statute is tough. Heck, just getting Congress’s attention is hard. A few years ago, I wrote an article about a 50-square-mile swath of Idaho where (according to my theory) people can commit crimes with impunity. Orin posted something about it here and it went viral. A bestselling novel was even written about it. And yet, of the scores of members of Congress I wrote to trying to get them to close the loophole, only a couple even acknowledged my letters.

My book thus wrestles with the very real barriers to fixing the traps I identify, either before or after the nation steps in them. The final chapter of my book offers a lengthy analysis along these lines. I’m not going to say much about that in this post, other than to talk a bit about my conclusion that some cliffhangers are not really worth trying to fix in advance.

There are two kinds of cliffhangers: those in which the main problem is a bad result, and those in which the main problem is uncertainty. An example of the former is Chapter 1, where a sitting president might get prosecuted (with the attendant disruption) or might not (with the attendant injustice). The fact that, in the meantime, presidents and prosecutors go about their days unsure of the answer is much less of a problem. The chapters on self-pardons and late impeachment fit in this category as well. Legislation requires energized consensus, and there wouldn’t be one. Best, then, to just wait for an actual case to deliver a final resolution: either an acceptable result or an unacceptable one that motivates Congress to act.

When the problem is uncertainty, by contrast, the case for proactivity is stronger. In Chapters 3 and 4, constitutional uncertainty could rip the country in half, with two people claiming presidential power, issuing contradictory orders to the military, and purporting to fire cabinet members. The cost of resolving such cliffhangers “the hard way” is so high that it should soften opposition and make it easier — albeit still not easy — to reach a consensus and fix things ahead of time.

The main thing I want to talk about in this last post, though, is better drafting. There is no way to go back in time to 1787 and help the Framers write a better Succession Clause, or to 1947 to help the Twenty-Second Amendment’s drafters tighten up their wording, but Congress will probably draft procedural constitutional amendments in the future. I have some modest suggestions for drafting them better.

The rules and procedures surrounding the presidency are no place to be casual. These provisions should be hyper-precise, even if it means losing some of the public accessibility that is otherwise ideal for the Constitution’s language. Yesterday’s sad tale of the attempt to simplify the Twenty-Second Amendment showed that sacrificing exactitude for punchiness can cost you both.

The process of drafting technical amendments is an odd combination of painful slowness and reckless speed. It typically has taken years and multiple attempts to get a proposed constitutional amendment introduced, through committee in one house of Congress, onto the floor, approved by two-thirds, through committee in the other house, onto the floor there, and approved by two-thirds there. Each step presents an opportunity to change the text.

Especially at the final stages, though, there is a strong sense of impatience and urgency. Having gotten as far as they have, proponents are reluctant to allow anything that might stop the proposal’s forward progress. Moreover, having fought so much and for so long over the details, they distrust any attempt to unravel their craftsmanship.

To a large extent, they are right. Often, proposed last-minute changes represent arguments that were already considered at the committee level and either were shot down there or were the subject of a carefully wrought compromise. Even to the extent that some changes are new, any proposal that stops long enough to get pecked at by hundreds of individual members of Congress will have a hard time ever getting through. If the proposed change is picky and it concerns an unlikely series of events — the stuff of constitutional cliffhangers — it will be hard to defeat the floor leaders’ powerful natural desire to ignore it.

But once there is a consensus on an amendment’s concept, execution, and details, an argument that is solely about the text should not be so disfavored. To be sure, when somebody on the floor of the Senate identifies a phrase that could be drafted better and proposes redrafting it, that is inimical to the goal of final passage. Sending the language back through committee could take weeks or months — an unavailable luxury near the end of a congressional term. Drafting by the full Senate on the spot doesn’t work very well either. Still, sometimes a late change really is called for. Realistically, it’s the last chance; once Congress has approved a proposed amendment, it has no real opportunity to do any redrafting.

Congress thus needs a way to identify mistakes earlier in the process, and to fix late-discovered mistakes in a way that doesn’t unravel years of careful work. The key is to separate the process for agreeing on an amendment’s purpose from the process for finalizing the text. I have a modest suggestion: add two steps to the process, drawing upon wisdom in the general public and using modern collaborative technology to perform a sort of wiki government.

When people or committees have been working with a text for too long, it becomes difficult for them to see the problems with it. A fresh pair of eyes — or better yet, millions of fresh pairs — can be very valuable. Consider the analogy of the very successful use of open-source collaboration to write and debug software. Constitutional amendments can be complicated, but they are less so than software (or than statutes, where this technique has been tried in some places, with mixed results). Thus, there is good reason to think that with the right collaborative technology, interested members of the public would be very helpful at “debugging” and optimizing proposed constitutional amendments.

Once a congressional committee has reached a final, clear consensus on the concept, execution, and details of an amendment, it should give the text one more run-through, to make any improvements to the text that better vindicate that consensus. The committee could take, say, five days to optimize the text with the help of an online process through which interested members of the public could propose, discuss, and rate alternative phrasings.

Working together, the interested public would quickly discover previously unnoticed loopholes and pitfalls, identify the best ways to prevent them, and generally optimize the text. Textual optimization is not easy, but that’s precisely the point. Members of Congress and their staffs, even at their most able, intelligent, and hardworking, cannot match the “wisdom of crowds.”

The “crowd” might find bugs that affect the details in ways the committee had not clearly addressed, but the collaborative process could provide multiple optimized texts, each one reflecting a different set of substantive choices. The committee would still vote on the substantive choices; the public process would just flag issues and offer good language to deal with them. (The committee could get public input at an earlier stage, when it is discussing concept, execution, and details, but there is reason to doubt that this would work nearly as well.)

Once the proposal moves from committee to the full House or Senate, there might be new debate about the concept, execution, and details. Changes at this stage would require changes to the text that the first round of public input might not have covered. But at that point, a similar (and shorter) public process could help to smooth the text over again. Because the textual changes would be working toward a common goal, and because it would not entail rejecting, or tabling, or sending the item back to committee, the public process would not need to slow things down much at all.

Congress would still maintain its voting power, of course. The public would have influence, not direct authority. But public influence would be a welcome addition to the process, even aside from its effectiveness. The Constitution represents the voice of the People with a capital P, not just that of their representatives, in a way that is not the case in the less concise, less accessible world of statutes. When it comes to writing new words into the Constitution, this sort of public participation would have a nice symbolic value as well.