Lifting off with better government

CorrespondentFebruary 10, 2010 

Lamenting that America's best days are behind her is a generational hazard of getting older. Often, to buck myself up, I remember that we survived the economic travails of the 1970s (when the interest rate hit 20 percent) and we survived Jimmy Carter, who used America's limitations to define his presidency, not her possibilities.

But a new round of doubt hit me over the weekend as I watched the Mercury-to-Apollo episodes of the documentary series "When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions." I was struck by the recollection of Gene Kranz, best known as the flight director who called the shots in Houston during the Apollo 13 near-catastrophe.

Kranz observed that when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to land a man on the moon within 10 years, the U.S. had a grand total of 20 minutes of experience in manned space flight. At the time, more NASA rockets had blown up than had launched men into orbit.

Yet America met Kennedy's challenge on July 16, 1969, when Neil Armstrong said from the moon's surface, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." But after watching those inspiring episodes, I wonder: Is the United States still capable of achieving giant leaps for mankind?

It's hard to shake my doubt.

James Fallows, writing in the January/February edition of the Atlantic, unwittingly identifies why we might never again soar as high as we once did - our increasingly dysfunctional federal government, particularly Congress.

As a journalist who's lived abroad, most recently in China, Fallows is euphoric on the spirit, ingenuity and creativity of the American people. But his praise stops when it comes to Congress. As he puts it, "One thing I've never heard overseas is 'I wish we had a Senate like yours.' " The crux of Fallows' criticism comes from Jonathan Rauch who, in 1994, coined the term "demosclerosis" - the government's progressive inability to adapt.

Add to that our growing inability to achieve. Would a Congress led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid get us to the moon? I don't think so. Not only is Congress incapable of action on big issues like health care or tort reform, it can't even build a bridge. Fallows uses the American Society of Civil Engineer's annual report card on infrastructure to demonstrate that while Congress fiddles, the country is crumbling beneath our feet.

So what do we do? A solid, reasonable starting point is Larry Sabato's book "A More Perfect Constitution." In it, the University of Virginia political scientist offers 23 proposals for a more perfect union.

When published in 2007, the book seemed to be merely an academic exercise. However, as our political leaders increasingly become disengaged from the people and fiscal reality, it now reads as a godsend.

His better ideas - meaning the ones I like - include congressional term limits, the constraint of a balanced budget amendment and congressional districts created by an independent, nonpartisan methodology.

For the presidency, Sabato proposes a single, six-year term with a two-year option exercised by the electorate in an up or down vote. He would scale back the president's war making powers and expand congressional wartime oversight. His best fiscal proposal would give the president the budget line-item veto.

Renewable 15-year terms would replace lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices, and Congress would have the power to set a mandatory retirement age for federal judges.

On the political side, Sabato suggests four regional presidential primaries to replace the political mish-mash we use today to nominate candidates. Perhaps the most significant proposal, intended to create a more connected government and populace, is a requirement that able-bodied Americans devote two years of service to their country. I would expand that to cover everyone.

Many will argue that it's dangerous to tamper with the political and governmental framework designed by our Founding Fathers. However, I doubt the political system we operate today is one the Founding Fathers would recognize ... or claim.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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