B S Raghavan

Quirks of the US Constitution

B. S. RAGHAVAN | Updated on November 11, 2012

No written Constitution can be perfect or ideal. After all, they are tailor-made for the times which they are meant to serve. Most written Constitutions, when scrutinised critically by lay outsiders, would be seen to contain peculiar features.

The same goes for the US Constitution. It is the briefest among written Constitutions, but the principles embodied and the institutions established within its short canvass have been instrumental in the US attaining the status of, economically the most affluent, technologically the most advanced and militarily the most powerful nation in the world.

It has nevertheless its share of quirks which seem inexplicable or irrational, even when judged against the fact that it was hammered out some 250 years ago when circumstances were different.

Take, for starters, the election of the US President. The founding fathers could have very well provided for the President being elected by a majority of the popular vote. It would have made the process simpler and more straightforward.

They have made it unnecessarily complicated by interposing an electoral college and making the outcome contingent on a candidate securing a majority of the 538 votes of that college made up of the number of Senators and Representatives to which the States may be entitled in the Congress.

As per the prescribed procedure, all the votes of the electoral college pertaining to a State are assigned to the candidate who obtains the majority of the popular vote of that State. This has, sometimes, led to a candidate who is rejected by a majority of the voters becoming President by virtue of his securing a majority of the electoral college vote.

Try as I might, I could not find any explanation for this arrangement in any of the commentaries on the US Constitution.

The voting for the Presidential election is rigidly set to take place on the “first Tuesday after the first Monday of November” of the year in which it is due, and the assumption of office of the elected President is again, equally rigidly, specified to take place on January 20 of the following year.


In other words, in the case of a President elected for the first term, the nation is virtually headless for 75 days, since the incumbent who has either completed his two terms or failed to get re-elected after his first term, is forced to sit it out doing nothing. Such a long power vacuum can prove positively dangerous.

Actually, to my mind, there is no very great merit in limiting the total period of office of the President to two terms of four year each.

The reach and range of the US are so vast, its impact on world affairs is so great, and the nature and scale of its operations so complex that the head of its Administration will easily need three-to-four years to come to grips with them and get into his stride.

Unfair ceiling

By the time the President feels he is in full command, it is almost the middle of his second term and he is face to face with the prospect of having to wind up.

I think, it is reasonable to provide for at least three, if not four, terms for the US President so as to enable him to leave his mark. In the case of younger Presidents, the ceiling is particularly unfair.

The same argument applies to the term of a Member of the House of Representatives which is two years.

There is no ceiling on the number of terms he can get re-elected; even so, to expose him to the hurly-burly and uncertainty of an election every two years is apt to detract from his effectiveness.

The US Constitution lays down that each State, regardless of its size and population, will have two Senators in the Upper House. For instance, Alaska with 663,000 sq.miles, and Rhode Island with 1545 sq.miles in land area, and California with 37 million and Wyoming 563,000 in population are represented by the same two Senators each.

Ostensibly, the idea of the framers of the Constitution was to make sure that larger States do not ride rough shod over the interests of small States.

Maybe, while redressing the inequitable representation, weightages could be assigned to the votes of Senators elected from small States.

Published on November 11, 2012

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