In an election year, candidates are holding forth predictably about finding solutions to persistent problems, fixing ineffective programs and even—at last—meeting the needs of the American people. William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe, professors at the University of Chicago and Stanford University, respectively, think that a change in the very structure of American government is needed before any such promises can be kept. The thesis of “Relic” is that the United States is “burdened with a government designed for a bygone era.” The times have changed, “but the core of the Constitution . . . has not.”
The solution, Messrs. Howell and Moe believe, is a constitutional amendment that would allow the president to submit bills directly to Congress, which would be required promptly to vote them up or down, without amendments, on a strict majoritarian basis. The essence of their idea is to strengthen the agenda-setting power of the president, whose new role would be more like that of a prime minister under a parliamentary constitution.
In a parliamentary system, the chief executive is chosen by the legislature, so a unified government is guaranteed. In our separation-of-powers system, the presidency and the congressional majority may well owe allegiance to opposing parties. Indeed, America is often plagued by a divided, even antagonistic, government. Legislators—with no responsibility for picking the president or carrying out his agenda—are left free to pander to their constituents. Citizens expect no less and withhold their votes if their representatives fail to deliver the goods. Congress is thus held hostage by well-organized lobbies.
Messrs. Howell and Moe call such a Congress “parochial,” because it is controlled by local interests and feels no broader mission or purpose. Moreover, it is a powerful institution. Congress—being closer to the people—has the whip hand over the president, who is required to take a national perspective. It is “difficult for government to act,” the authors write, and when it does act, “it tends to produce weak, cobbled-together, patchwork policies that lack coherence and are not effective.”
The authors provide ample evidence of this cycle of dysfunction. ObamaCare is “an incredibly complex patchwork that no one would have favored or designed if working from the ground up,” and so, they say, are the policies that govern education, taxation, welfare and energy. They emphasize a point that Tea Party followers and campaign-finance supporters often fail to grasp: Changing the type of people elected to Congress—whether by making them more ideologically pure or less obsessed with fundraising—will not make a big difference. Constitutional design determines the incentives that legislators face. “What we’re seeing is an institutional phenomenon, not a personal one.”
By William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe Basic, 233 pages, $26.99
Given the difficulty of amending the Constitution, wholesale revision—like switching to a parliamentary system—is impossible. Messrs. Howell and Moe thus propose their very limited but highly consequential constitutional amendment. As they summarize it: “The president would propose. Congress would decide, up or down.” No constituency-pleasing amendments to the president’s legislative package would be allowed, nor would any delay. Such a change would do no more, they say, than extend the fast-track authority that presidents now enjoy in trade deals to all policy matters. The rest of the Constitution would remain unchanged.
The authors’ idea follows neatly from their diagnosis: If the problem is a localistic Congress with powerful incentives to serve narrow interests, the solution is a stronger president ready to implement a national agenda. “Presidents,” they write, “are the champions of coherence and effectiveness in a fragmented, parochial political world.”
The case for constitutional reform in “Relic” is the best—certainly the most realistic—in many years. Yet some caveats apply. First, the authors might have given American politics more credit for facilitating strong, coherent legislation as opposed to the weak, patchwork variety. Single-party dominance—achieved under FDR and LBJ and, for a while, under Barack Obama—occurs often enough to make vital episodes of dramatic lawmaking possible. And even under divided government, policy entrepreneurs selling appealing ideas have achieved victories that were widely thought to be impossible. Examples include tax reform under Ronald Reagan and welfare reform under Bill Clinton.
“Relic,” as its title suggests, lays great stress on how different the Founders’ world is from our own and on how outdated their work must now be. That the 18th and 21st centuries are radically different is indisputable but not relevant to the argument. At issue is not the Constitution’s age but its effectiveness, and “Relic” documents ample contemporary pathology. Moreover, one may question the authors’ claim that “the founders did not believe that all men are created equal.” Recent scholarship shows the famous lines of the Declaration of Independence were indeed meant to extend to all people, and suggestions to the contrary are probably not helpful in today’s highly polarized political climate.
Akhil Amar, a professor of law at Yale, has shown that reforms that have not already been tried in state constitutions are not likely to be taken up at the federal level, and no state has come close to adopting the proposal that Messrs. Howell and Moe put forward. A less bold reform, though, has been adopted by many states and might encourage constitutional changes for the better, whether they resemble the one in “Relic” or something else. How about an amendment requiring—say, once every 25 years—a national ballot that asks voters whether they would like to hold a constitutional convention? Just getting people to think seriously about constitutional reform would be progress. The cogent analysis in “Relic” helps to achieve that goal.
Mr. Main is an associate professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and editor of the anthology “Is the American Constitution Obsolete?”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."