Over 300 public-spirited individuals submitted ideas for National Review Institute’s 2010 Challenge. In launching the contest, we were confident that worthy ideas would flood in from beyond the Beltway — and we were right. Constitutional amendments were proposed, the growth of the administrative state was addressed, agencies were recommended for elimination, and clever rhetorical arguments were made. The entrants shared a commitment to the proper constitutional order and a frustration with the present state of affairs. Many contestants recognized that remedies to federal encroachments rest with the states. We are sincerely grateful to all the contestants for sharing their ideas and are pleased to announce the contest winner and those who’ve earned an honorable mention.
WINNER: LIMIT THE POWER OF CONGRESS
Arkansas legislator Dan Greenberg recognizes that Congress is unlikely to propose constitutional amendments to limit its own power. The legislatures of two-thirds of the states can bypass Congress by calling for a convention to propose amendments. Greenberg notes that some people worry about the prospect of a “runaway” convention, but thinks that political and legal constraints could prevent that from happening — and that the first convention should consider an amendment to Article V that would explicitly permit state legislatures to limit a convention to the consideration of a single amendment or eliminate the requirement that the requisite number of states must call a convention in order to propose an amendment. It would be in state legislators’ interest to propose and ratify such an amendment because revitalizing the states’ ability to propose amendments to the Constitution would “enhance their power in dealing with Congress.”
Note: A survey of our entries reveals a popular subject for a constitutional convention: repeal of the 17th Amendment. The amendment changed the way U.S. senators are elected, taking the power to appoint senators from state legislatures and giving it to directly to the electorate. Many believe this shift did damage to federalism by radically reducing the influence of state governments on the federal government. These contributors see restoration of the original constitutional process as a prerequisite for the restoration of federalism.
Re-schedule tax day. Peter Caylor of Virginia proposes moving tax day to September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. While this shift would allow for a simplification of federal accounting practices, the real benefit of the proposal is that taxpayers would be reminded of the enormous cost of government just a few short weeks before general elections are held. Caylor suggests coupling the proposal with other reforms, including adjusting withholding schedules so that fewer people would receive regular refunds and suffer from the illusion that they get money from the government.
Malpractice reform for federal health-care plans. Keith Paige, a practicing surgeon from Washington State, suggests that commonsense tort reform be applied to federal health-care plans. He proposes that for all episodes of care that are billed primarily to the federal government — including Medicare, Medicaid, and Federal Employee Health Plans — malpractice awards be limited to economic damages plus a capped amount for pain and suffering. This reform would likely lead to a drop in costly tests and treatments driven more by fear of lawsuits than medical judgment. Dr. Paige performs a back-of-the-envelope calculation: Since defensive medicine is estimated to cost $70–100 billion a year and the government purchases approximately 40–45 percent of all health care, the potential savings from even a 50 percent reduction of defensive medicine in patients covered by the federal government would amount to $14–20 billion annually. (This reform would also reduce the coffers of the trial lawyers who lavishly fund liberal candidates and causes.)
Improve college access while reducing the cost to the taxpayer. It is well established that increases in student aid contribute to the rising cost of college. So how do we increase access to higher education while decreasing the burden on the taxpayers? Dan Lips in Washington, D.C., suggests three solutions. First, given the growing popularity of online learning, he proposes that states use online learning to streamline course offerings available at different universities in the same state. Second, he would require state-funded colleges to put their course content online and make it available to the public for free. MIT has already, with great success, made “virtually all” of its course material available online for free, and the Apple iTunes program offers free downloads of lectures given at some of the most respected universities in the world. Third, he proposes that state higher-education institutions expand credit-by-exam options — allowing students to work toward their degrees by demonstrating subject mastery on rigorous examinations. While these reforms are all state-based, Lips suggests that the federal government could consider requiring colleges that choose to receive federal funding to place a percentage of course content online and to offer credit-by-exam options. These reforms hold great promise for students and taxpayers alike.
Support the family. Robert Guenther of New Jersey suggests several policies as part of a “Year of the Middle Class”: “a package of family-centered legal and tax changes to strengthen families and eliminate the need for the outsourcing of parenting to the federal government.” Among his suggestions: Increase the child tax credit. Let parents use their own money to pay for child care, save for education, etc., instead of seeking federal programs to help out.
Put COLAs on a diet. Daniel Corrin from Washington, D.C., notes that “every January the federal government increases retirees’ Social Security payments, federal pensions, and government workers’ salaries by the growth in the Consumer Price Index.” He suggests that the federal government wait until the cost of living has gone up by 5 percent before implementing any of these Cost of Living Adjustments. Assuming a steady 3 percent inflation rate, for example, the federal government would give out a 5 percent COLA every 20 months instead of a 3 percent one every year. Over time, the savings add up (Corrin’s back-of-the-envelope calculation has the federal government cutting spending by more than $250 billion over the first five years).
Reduce the power and perks of public-sector unions. Numerous entries express frustration with the pay, perks, and political clout of public-sector employees. Gregory Erickson of Tennessee recommends a 10 percent reduction in the federal workforce, and Joseph Canouse of Georgia proposes reducing compensation and instating a hiring freeze. Two contestants — Kent Osband from Connecticut and Benjamin Pugh from California — propose a “public parity” reform that would prohibit average wages and benefits in public employment from exceeding the average wages and benefits for comparable private employment. Peter McFadden of New York suggests that government employers should cease making automatic payroll deductions for union dues.
Jay Pittard of Green Mountain, N.C., proposes the boldest reform to address the abuses of public-sector unions. He writes, “The combination of union power with the pre-existing protections of the Civil Service has created a class of overpaid untouchables. Either a union or the Civil Service code is protection enough for anyone. Nobody needs both.” He recommends that Congress prohibit unions for federal employees. Camela Sutton, a homeschooling mother from Washington State, also recommends the elimination of public-sector unions.
Ensure constitutional literacy. Many readers believe that one reason the Founders’ legacy is in jeopardy is that too few Americans are familiar with it. Jerry Hashimoto, a pastry chef from Berkeley, Calif., suggests that high-school students should have to pass an exam demonstrating their familiarity with the Constitution and other founding documents as a prerequisite for graduation.
Note: Of course, the possibility of dubious constitutional interpretation by education bureaucrats poses a real cause for concern. We would like to suggest a ready-made solution: States should require high-school students pass the same fact-based exam that our nation’s immigrants must pass to gain American citizenship.
Tap the power of the states. Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona writes that when our nation’s capital is under hostile control, the best course of action is recourse to the states. Because the Constitution reserves most powers to the states or to the people, state constitutions should be among our first lines of defense in the protection of our freedoms. State constitutions provide fertile ground for both offensive and defensive action. For example, he suggests that advocates of limited government could amend state constitutions to require states to decline unfunded mandates. Strong signals from state governments that they take their constitutional role seriously should make Washington more cautious about supporting overly ambitious national legislative agendas.
– Kate O’Beirne is president of National Review Institute.