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Citizens' "Athenian" Initiatives Amendment

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Introduction and Summary of a Plan for a Citizens "Athenian" Initiatives Amendment to Improve Our Dysfunctional Government and Control its Excesses

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1. Foreword  Let us make clear from the start that this plan proposes the incorruptible “Athenian” initiatives system NOT the easily corruptible “Oregon” initiatives system used today in 24 states and many cities. This foreword explains Athenian initiatives, clarifies how they avoid Oregon initiative defects, and shows why they are far more effective and trustworthy.

With “Oregon” initiatives, any wealthy special interest group can write a self-serving devious initiative petition and qualify it for the ballot using paid signature gatherers. (Yet despite this, citizens strongly support their hard-won initiative rights.)

With "Athenian" initiatives, informed creative citizens propose initiatives and an Assembly of 500 randomly-selected citizens meet monthly to qualify the very best. The 500 citizens are like a super-grand-jury; big enough to represent accurately the views of the entire population, and protected so tampering attempts are dauntingly dangerous with almost inevitable punishment. A super-large-jury has the wisdom to winnow the proposed initiatives so only the best few go on the ballots, and then the people make the final decisions.

About 2,500 years ago, ancient Athenians invented democracy with initiatives as its cornerstone. It lasted almost 200 years (until the Macedonians conquered Athens). Historians call it the "Golden Age of Athens" because it is the foundation of our western civilization and of all the world's democracies. Not only did the system work, it produced arguably the most productive and creative period in our entire human history. Athenian cornerstones of government were:

  1. Juries of randomly-selected citizens decided right from wrong, innocence from guilt. The Founding Fathers adopted Athenian jury concepts (via the Roman Empire, Magna Carta, and English common law) as the heart of the Judicial Branch for settling all manner of disputes from murder and rape to massive class actions and complex financial litigation.

  2. Majority votes of the people made the important decisions. The Founding Fathers adopted it as the heart of how we elect our Presidential and Legislative branches of representative democracy. For over 100 years, the States have made majority vote by initiative a de facto part of our constitution.

  3. A Boule, which in ancient Athens meant a Council of 500 randomly-selected citizens, set the electorate's voting agenda on initiatives proposed by citizens. Athenians considered the Boule to be the incorruptible and most important cornerstone of democracy. The Founding Fathers did not know this—archeologists did not find and translate the key documents until 1891, 115 years after the Fathers framed the constitution.

Initiatives are the people's only permanent and definite method to assure that government, Congress in particular, operates and knows that it must operate for the People's benefit and not for the benefit of Congress, Congresspersons, or their friends. Legislative Initiatives will generally provide enforcement of the people's will over Congress. For the Executive and Judicial branches of government, and for some intractable Congressional issues, Constitutional Initiatives will be necessary. Though constitutional Initiatives will enable the People to propose amendments, they will still require ratification by the States. All alternatives to Initiatives as the People's ultimate control of government are temporary fixes and, as the People are painfully aware, ultimately fall far short or fail completely.

This Plan proposes to incorporate the Athenian Boule cornerstone-of-government in modernized form (i.e., stripped of all authorities except processing initiatives) as a constitutional amendment that will reliably improve our dysfunctional federal government and help control its excesses. Though compared to Congress, initiatives will provide an extremely small proportion of our laws, they will be highly effective—e.g., by ensuring that government fulfill its constitutional duties. In later sections, the Plan explains in detail why we need this constitutional improvement to our system of checks and balances and how we can implement it.

Our word democracy comes from the Greek words dēmos "people" and kratos "rule". Following that tradition, the Greek word Boule, meaning roughly "the will after deliberation", is borrowed from the Greek and frequently used here instead of "U.S. Citizens' Initiatives Assembly" because it is brief, easy to remember, and it cannot be confused with other types of citizens' assemblies.

2. A Modern Boule is a far better initiative qualifying system than signature petitions for nations and larger states. Because a Boule consists of randomly-selected members, is more tamper proof than a Federal Grand Jury. It is virtually immune from special interests' influence, and to all intents and purposes incorruptible and trustworthy.

For large electorates, a Boule costs less than signature petitions. It permits citizens' feedback on proposed initiatives for many months before the Boule makes the decision whether to qualify them or not. It operates completely independent of government. It ensures that ballot initiatives are important, well constructed, and thoroughly vetted.

Because the Boule is a single deliberative organization, mirroring the people as a whole, it can rank the proposed Initiatives and select only enough that they do not overload the electorate. It offers independent majority and minority opinions on the Initiatives.

A Boule is similar in many ways
to a Citizens’ Assembly:

Citizens' Assembly

B.C. Citizens' Assembly in 2004
Photo by Stuart Davis #715955
by kind permission of The Vancouver Sun
History, Results, 2004 and 2009 Referenda

This Plan's modern Boule has less scope and authority than the original Athenian Boule, preserving only the power to manage and qualify Initiatives. Moreover, there are many variations on the theme of a deliberative Citizens' Assembly, so the structure and functions of a Boule require finer detail to clarify specifics:

Boule
i.e., U.S. Citizens' Initiatives Assembly

Typical Citizens' Assembly

Independent of government

Quasi-governmental organization

Budget approved annually by the People

Budget defined by government

Mandate defined by the People

Mandate defined by government

Meets in perpetuity with staggered terms

Meeting term defined by government

Enables checks and balances on federal government

Government controls its scope

Randomly selected from all Citizens eligible to vote

Randomly selected only from registered voters

As in a jury, those selected must serve to ensure immunity from special interest influence

Only those who ask or are willing need serve

Could be influenced by special interests

Boule manages the initiatives process

Government manages the referendum

The People create proposed initiatives

The Assembly creates the proposed referendum for the ballot.

Boule ranks initiatives and puts the best on ballot

The Plan calls for concurrent action on (i) a U.S. constitutional amendment for nationwide initiatives and (ii) a revalidation of the Athenian initiatives system at state and/or large city levels. This concurrent approach has three principal benefits:

  1. Because of the great time needed to process a U.S. constitutional amendment, and the lesser, but still substantial, time for state or city revalidation, concurrency will save many years. The easiest states in which to make the concurrent validation are those that already have a direct initiative process.

    In the 16 states with direct constitutional initiatives (i.e., AZ, AR, CA, CO, FL, IL, MI, MO, MT, NE, NV, ND, OH, OK, OR, and SD) a state constitutional initiative is all it takes to replace Oregon with Athenian initiatives. In all of these 16 states plus 3 direct legislative initiative states (i.e., ID, UT, and WA), all it takes is a state constitutional referendum.

  2. The momentum for a national initiative will encourage the state/city revalidation; the state/city revalidation will encourage the national initiative process.

  3. This approach will update details from current experience, manage expectations, provide an irrefutable demonstration for doubters, and allow cross-fertilization of ideas—all without incurring additional risk. This is entirely feasible because, under the U.S. constitution, the final details of the Amendment are determined at the Article V Convention of the states, which will occur after a state has validated Athenian initiatives.

In smaller states and cities, the Boule approach has an unavoidable disadvantage. For statistical reasons, the smaller the population the more expensive it is per capita. For example, a nationwide initiative system will cost about 35¢ per capita per year—1/60th of the cost of running Congress. For California it would cost about ¢70 per capita per year, for Washington State about $3.50. However, by comparison, the ancient Athenians thought it worth paying several hundred dollars per capita per year!

3. Special interests' influence over Congress has become excessive. It causes government to promote special interests' well-being over the people's well-being. As a direct consequence, each year government squanders at least $350 billion of the people's wealth—over $4,000 per year from a family of four. Moreover, the related moral decay in our highest elected officials now permeates governance and the business elite, as evidenced by gross malfeasance, corruption, and government-sanctioned theft in many of our most trusted institutions. The situation is intolerable; we cannot permit it to stand.

Ideally, in our republic the people can elect representatives who will solve these problems. Unfortunately, special interests—for example, big business, lobbyists, multi-national corporations, military-industrial complex, foreign governments—select the slate of viable candidates in both parties and influence them long before the people vote. Today, our constitutional checks and balances cannot restrain the impact of media's enormous cost and its extremely persuasive technologies. The resulting huge campaign spending by special interests translates into almost permanent reelection of their chosen candidates. Inevitably, those elected have major obligations to their contributors.

Congress cannot and will not resolve these problems because solutions are contrary to the personal interests of a majority of its members. Voters may change political leadership, but, despite campaign promises, improvements are usually cosmetic. Congress is a law unto itself and can always reverse improvements, create loopholes, and make end-runs. Evidence shows that underlying causes remain unchanged; these systemic problems continue to grow. The Constitution's preamble defines fundamental concepts of our republic—government must promote the general welfare. Excessive promotion of special interests' welfare over the people is clearly dysfunctional governance.

We would be stupid to permit managers of a business to set their own pay, perquisites, ethics, and rules for vendor gifts—we know that such a company would be a disaster. Nevertheless, we permit congresspersons to do exactly this and more. So, how can we retain the benefits of good representative government while providing oversight control to keep congresspersons responsive to our wellbeing after we elect them?

The solution must lie in improved checks and balances—it is manifestly futile to keep hoping that a preponderance of congresspersons will somehow overcome their human nature. The literature abounds with authors who criticize government but offer no solution or hope that Congress will somehow implement a solution. This Plan takes a proactive stand: it applies the constitutional right of the People and the power of the States to enforce a solution upon Congress over inevitable congressional opposition. The plan follows the explicit remedy prescribed by the Founding Fathers in the U.S. constitution—it conforms strictly to the written word of the U.S. Constitution.

4. Only the people can control congressional excesses. History has repeatedly proved that Congress cannot and will not do it. Constitutional separation of powers bars such control by the President, Judiciary, or States. Moreover, a commission of appointed or elected members cannot have this power both because it is constitutionally unqualified and because its members are subject to manipulation by special interests and by Congress. Thus, the responsibility to limit congressional excesses falls unavoidably upon the people.

Politics is about power. Because congressional maneuvers and special interests largely nullify the people's votes, the people retain very little federal power. Nationwide Citizens' Ballot Initiatives are the only constitutional way for the people to gain significant power to set things right. However, the approach taken for State and City initiatives is inadequate—not least because they are wide open to special interests' abuses. Consequently, this Plan uses a nationwide ballot Initiative process that is a great improvement over that used in the States. In particular, it has ample safeguards ensuring that special interests can never gain control, that ballot initiatives will be important and clear, that Initiatives receive extensive public feedback before they get on the ballot, and that the number of initiatives will not overload the voters.

Nationwide ballot Initiatives are necessary not because the people have a perverse desire to exercise the congressional control function directly, but because they have profound convictions that Congress has ceased to be responsive to the popular will and that Congress has no innate ability to reform itself. The goal is to overcome Congress' detrimental resistance to change in order to permit long-term improvement of representative government—not to undermine or to micromanage Congress.

An Initiatives solution is entirely consistent with the Founding Fathers' views. For example:

Most U.S. Citizens are familiar with initiatives—about 70 percent of the people can vote on initiatives at their state or local elections. Polls constantly show that voters overwhelmingly support nationwide Initiatives by about three to one. By their use of initiatives in 24 states and at local levels for over 100 years, the people have demonstrated that they are competent to exercise this power.

At a national level, Switzerland has used nationwide initiatives since 1891—i.e., about 115 years. Switzerland modeled its constitution on the U.S. constitution with a direct democracy overlay. Despite many early political doubters of the people's competence, the people have demonstrated exceptional judgment. Swiss initiatives have never caused a crisis and have several times helped defused crises (Fossedal p. 91)—a far better record than most representative lawmaking. Starting as a poor mountainous nation with few natural resources and no seaports, Switzerland has thrived to become a top-ranked economic, democratic, and stable nation.

The Founding Fathers in 1787 avoided mentioning any form of direct democracy in the Constitution because they believed that the entire electorate had to meet in one place (Wilson, Madison). By 1920, state initiatives had proved that this constraint is unnecessary.

Initiatives are not a panacea for all that ails this nation. Expectations must be realistic. Nevertheless, they will solve many current problems and future problems as they arise. Cumulatively, Initiatives will have a major long-term impact on our nation's success and a huge cost-benefit to the people.

5. Outline of the Operation of a Boule (i.e., a U.S. Citizens' Initiatives Assembly)

Citizens Propose Initiatives

Small groups of Citizens and qualified U.S. organizations will write the proposed initiatives. Small groups tend to be more creative than large groups. Some examples are a blue ribbon panel, a study group, a self-selected team of the nation's best minds, a nonprofit organization, or any group of 25 ordinary citizens. They propose Initiatives for federal legislation and constitutional amendments by publishing them in a specific newspaper, category, and day of the week. To control a flood of Initiatives, an initial fee of $10,000 will decline over time. A Citizen may propose one Initiative every two years. A blog shows some examples.

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Citizens Provide On-Line Feedback

All proposed Initiatives, modifications and comments will be available and searchable on-line from the Boule's web site in the form of web blogs or successor technologies. By publication or after registering a valid Internet ID, U.S. Citizens' and qualified U.S. organizations will improve Initiatives by  providing feedback on proposed Initiatives, participating in opinion polls, etc.

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Boule Qualifies Initiatives

The Boule consists of 480 randomly selected Citizens (an accurate cross-section of all Citizens eligible to vote). It does what a large group does well—it deliberates and ranks the proposed Initiatives and chooses the best after a process of deliberation, elimination, expert help, feedback, etc. The Boule may suggest corrections and/or improvements to the Authors and the Authors may re-propose their Initiative.

The Boule will be independent from government, controlled by the People through Initiatives, protected to a higher degree than a Federal Grand Jury, extremely safe from tampering or media exploitation.

The final selection will be from Initiatives that have passed all the safeguards and will not overburden the Voters. At each general election, a maximum of twelve qualified Initiatives will go on the ballot as Candidate Direct Initiatives.

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Congress

In addition, the Boule may submit up to twelve Candidate Indirect Initiatives to Congress over each two-year period. Congress may modify them, may or may not pass them, and they are subject to Presidential veto. Indirect Initiatives are appropriate when the Authors believe that Congress will support them, thereby saving the nationwide Electorate much time and effort. If Congress or the President decides not to take appropriate action, the Initiative can still go on the ballot as a Direct Initiative.

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Citizens Vote on Initiatives

The people make the actual decision to approve or reject each Candidate Direct Initiative by voting at general elections. If passed, they become law that neither Congress nor the President can overrule.

6. Anticipating federal excesses, the Founding Fathers built a remedy into the U.S. Constitution. Their wording of Article V explicitly grants the States the necessary constitutional power to curb federal excesses by use of the second method of amending the Constitution—i.e., an Article V Convention of the States. Reasonable care will avoid procedural problems. The wording of the second method follows:

"The Congress, …on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which… shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress…." (Article V, 2nd Method)

While seeking state support for the new Constitution, the Founding Fathers explained this remedy as follows:

The Constitution and the intentions of the Founding Fathers are united and clear. The people have the constitutional right and the States have the constitutional power and duty to alter a Government that harms the people. Since the problems will only worsen, procrastination increases the dangers—we must check congressional excesses and deficiencies otherwise we abandon our American Dream that is already slipping away in large part due to special interests' influence.

7. Both U.S. and state constitutions rely on each state to limit federal Government's excesses. These are powerful obligations, because all state legislators have sworn oaths to support both constitutions. State legislators can fulfill their duty most prudently by putting the issue to a state referendum. (State governments can also gain important additional benefits.)

As shown in the schematic, State legislation, referenda, and initiatives are valid methods to initiate an Article V Convention. Referenda are preferable because they most clearly unite the constitutional authority of the States with the inalienable right of the people to alter their government. Their unity brings momentous constitutional authority to bear on any constitutional disputes with Congress. Referenda are available in all 50 states.

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If a majority of legislators in any of the 24 initiative states disregards their oaths, the people can use a state initiative to initiate the plan. If legislators in any of the other states disregard their oaths, the people must elect legislative majorities who will respect their duty to the people.

However, no matter how much authority the voters and state constitutions give to state referenda and initiatives, U.S. and state Supreme Court decisions generally argue that the State Legislature, not an initiative or referendum, must make the formal Amendment applications to Congress. The States should comply with this literal interpretation of Article V until the U.S. Supreme Court clarifies these matters.

Congress lacks the constitutional power to deny the States' application, though it may cause delays. Reasonable care will avoid second-method procedural issues and speed the process.

8. When several states support this plan, they should annex it and improve it. When they annex it, the states will have complete control over the Amendment's content and wording—this web site will surrender all rights. After 34 states have submitted applications, Congress shall call the Convention. The Convention will propose the Amendment. Congress will choose the ratification method. Finally, 38 States will ratify it. If state legislators embrace the plan, the Amendment will cost just a few million dollars and could take effect in as little as five years. If they oppose it, costs could climb past 250 million dollars and it could take perhaps 15 years.

Reasons PRO State Legislators' Support

U.S. Constitution requires state legislatures and legislators to control congressional excesses that harm the People and to protect rights

State Constitutions require legislatures and legislators to solve the problems and protect the people from federal violations of state rights

Potential to limit federally mandated programs and their hidden state taxes

Potential to limit unreasonable strings attached to federal funds

Legislators notice a 3-to-1 voter support of nationwide initiatives

Potential for federal term limits to open-up congressional elections

Continuation of state leadership on constitutional issues

The States cannot solve the problems by a series of Amendments whereas this single comprehensive solution can solve them

State political and financial risks in supporting the plan are minimal

CON State Support

Control currently exerted by the federal power structure on the States may obstruct state action—but may backfire because federal control reinforces need for the Amendment

Opposition by many special interest groups that are threatened by a possible reduction of their influence

Possible reactionary response by political party leadership and use of state influence to perpetuate the federal status quo—but may backfire due to lack of rank-and-file support

Some negative experiences with state signature-petition initiatives—but the Boule approach offsets this

9. Passing the Amendment will be tough—but it is possible and real change will certainly ensue. (By comparison, our current practice of electing charismatic politicians who promise solutions is seductively easy, but they inevitably fail to deliver real lasting change.) Federal government, conglomerate media and many special interests will almost unanimously oppose the Amendment. Though our success is certainly possible, no one can assure it. However, if we do not try, success is impossible; we condemn ourselves, and our decedents, to a substantially lesser quality of life.

To avoid dependence on opponents' resources, the Amendment campaign must initially rely on the Internet, which the media does not yet control. Self-initiated support must come from citizens, public interest organizations, blogs, promoting web sites and concurring politicians at all levels of government.

The issue reached the 2008 presidential race. One candidate, Senator Mike Gravel, proposed a plan to limit congressional excesses—the National Initiative for Democracy (NI4D). We praise Senator Gravel for his courage and wisdom. The NI4D concept has much in common with this plan, though there are important differences where certain features of NI4D need improvement. Other presidential candidates realize that the people are serious about forcing Congress to change its ways but avoid confronting the issue of nationwide initiatives. The issue will increase in importance but we can expect almost all congressional candidates to finesse it. Some state candidates, on the other hand, may decide that change is overdue and come out in favor.

Ultimately, the amendment campaign must focus on gaining support of state legislators. Realistically, the public debate will begin in earnest only after the first state legislature places a state referendum on their state ballot asking the people in their state if they support a U.S. Citizens' Initiatives Amendment. The people's vote will probably reflect the pollsthree votes in favor for each vote against. Once this public support becomes apparent, state legislators will mostly decide to support the Amendment or face serious reelection difficulties.

As the peoples' frustration with Congress turns to anger and the States decide to limit federal encroachments, this adjustment to our system of constitutional checks and balances is probably inevitable. A hundred years ago, our ancestors introduced state ballot initiatives to limit big business excesses in state government. Today, nationwide "Athenian" Initiatives can limit special interests' influence and federal government excesses.

However, as with any significant government reform, it is a great threat to vested political and economic powers. Realistically, it will take great public misery before the demand for serious fundamental change reaches a tipping point. Unfortunately, the nation seems to be heading in that direction. In the event, this website presents perhaps the best and least tumultuous option, which could emerge as the right solution, in the right place, at the right time.

 

 

If this plan makes sense to you, please promote it to others.

 

 

Don't get Mad—get EQUAL—encourage your state legislators to sponsor a state referendum.

 

 

Download PDF and Print: Cover and Five Documents for State Legislator's Information Package

Cover Page for the Five Key Documents Introduction to Nationwide Initiatives Plan Reasons Why States Should Support the Plan State Bill and Constitutional Amendment Reference 1:  Government Actions Mandated Reference 2: Citizens' Boule Rules

Consolidated PDF Version of State Legislator's Information Package Including Cover and Five Documents

 

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