Krauthammer & Me: The American Constitution Works

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81 Responses

  1. NoPublic says:

    In the end, the system works. Exhibit A is Wisconsin.

    If that’s the system working maybe the real problem is that an awful lot of the people don’t seem to like the system because they feel that it’s been gamed to dilute their influence.Report

    • Scott in reply to NoPublic says:

      I agree, I doubt the founders thought the answer was to run away from voting like spoiled kids to stop your opponent.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Scott says:

        Isn’t that what Aaron Burr did?Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Scott says:

        The system has been gamed to dilute their influence.

        The Founders were not particularly fond of rule by the “mob” and very clearly distrusted amalgamations of voters using the power of democracy to vote themselves special advantages. They wanted to play factions off against one another so that factions would only gain advantage when their advantage was actually in the public interest.

        In the case of private labor unions, the interests of corporate management is an effective — I’m sure you’d argue too effective — counterbalance. But who or what is the counterbalance to public sector unions?

        Also note that Republicans hung on to the Senate in Wisconsin. By one seat, but they did hang on to it. If the results of elections, and particularly recall elections as envisioned by the Progressives (a movement which started in Wisconsin, natch) reflects the popular will, then 4 out of 6 Republicans voting with Scott Walker did so in harmony with the will of the majority in their districts.Report

        • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Burt Likko says:

          The counterbalance is the government. Now, just as in other companies in other nations, the relationship can be good, bad, or indifferent, but this conservative meme that ‘ OMG the public sector unions are so powerful’ is nonsense. If public sector unions were so powerful, maybe they’d actually be paid more than private sector workers in the same field with the same experience.

          As for the spin on the recalls, here’s my response. In the whole of the last 100 years, only 13 state legislators have been recalled. Last Tuesday, two were. Also, all of these recalls were in leaning-red to plain out red territory.

          Now, the results aren’t as good as I wanted, but to throw it away as a loss is silly. Now, the power in the legislature no longer is in the hands of Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald clan, but in the hands of Dale Schultz. Which is an improvement.Report

        • NoPublic in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Here’s that argument again, and it’s still crap:

          Public sector employees are paid by the government who is responsible to us and the government *is* us therefore they’re negotiating against the public good.

          As opposed to Private sector employees who are paid by the corporation who is responsible to the shareholders who are us and… wait. What was the argument again?Report

  2. Art Deco says:

    I would prefer New Zealand’s constitution to our own. I am pleased to let Elias Isquith, Robert Kuttner, Kevin Drum et al have their way for four years as long as my confederates have four years to repair their work.Report

    • James K in reply to Art Deco says:

      New Zealand does not have a constitution as such.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to James K says:

        It does have a body of constitutional law.

        It has a unicameral legislature and the head of state has no practical authority to veto legislation. Someone is actually truly and visibly responsible for public policy and public policy can be made without interminable negotiations. There are other agreeable features of Kiwi institutions: the electoral calendar differentiates national and local elections, supplementary allocations from party lists contain the ill effects of gerrymandering, elections are scheduled such that your parliamentarians can spend more time legislating and investigating and less time fundraising and campaigning, and you do not have insuperable barriers to entry for third parties.

        The trouble we have with discussions of this nature here in this country is that the left defines well functioning institutions as institutions that can be relied upon to give them what they want and frustrate the opposition in any and all circumstances. The right has done what a good husband does: defined what is optimal as what they have.Report

  3. RTod says:

    Tom- another really excellent post. I’d argue something, but I agree with it totally.Report

  4. greginak says:

    You really didn’t address many of the complaints people have which lead us to think our system is a bit broken. One of the common examples, whihc both parties use, is the anonmous hold in the senate. Senators can prevent one of the many federal level officails from even getting a vote for confirmation anonmously. That gives individual senators great power to extracte pork often without even having to own up to it. That is not in the constitution but it is one of the senate rules. In fact many of the comlpaints people have aren’t about the Constitution but about the rules the congress has developed.

    A common liberal complaint during the last 3 years has been the R drive to block every D initiative through the use of the veto threat or holds. The use of the veto and holds in the last 3 years are not the Constitution per se but the rules of the congress. The big C does not say a minority can prevent a majority from doing anything at all or say a super-majority is required for any legislation.

    If you are a fan of sclerotic gov, as i would say we have now, you are also a fan of the permanent security state, the WOD, permanent AG subsidies, keeping the DOE, and doing nothing significant to change the budget deficit. All the veto points in our system make it close to impossible to change some parts of our system. I have no doubt that a more changeable system would hurt both parties interests in some way but it would also make the parties accountable if they actually got some of the big changes they wanted.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to greginak says:

      Cheers, Mr. Kelly. Mr. Gregniak, I see your point, and I’m not married to the Senate’s non-filibuster filibuster rule. [Literal filibusters ala Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are no longer necessary; the gentlemen’s agreement is that one side merely threaten one and deny the 60 votes need for cloture.]

      However, there will be times when a 40-plus seat Senate minority is all that stands in the way of getting steamrolled by the other side. On those occasions, the party benefiting should be grateful, per the core point of this post.

      That may well be the situation after 2012.

      As for the rest of your laundry list of issues, were there a consensus for your POV, that’s the way it would be. (Not even in Western Europe, where even “conservatives” are [Bill] Clinton Democrats, is that laundry list fulfilled.)

      Me, I’m in favor of ugly consensus over bland majoritarianism. Should a Dem Senate minority be the only thing to stand in the way of some Tea Party steamroller post-2012, I promise not to kick about it, goose and gander.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        If you are a fan of sclerotic gov, as i would say we have now, you are also a fan of the permanent security state, the WOD, permanent AG subsidies, keeping the DOE, and doing nothing significant to change the budget deficit.

        There are though, some procedural brakes to letting things go on indefinitely. For instance, one of the more expensive parts of the security state, the US Army, is only allowed to go on for two years without action.

        Let’s not forget, Obama had in his power to let all the Bush Tax Cuts (TM) expire at the end of last year. (unless one believes there would have been enough for a veto override, which I don’t). He did not want to pay the political price for it.Report

        • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Kolohe says:

          Actually, he cut a deal to make sure people didn’t lose their unemployment insurance, the START treaty got ratified, and DADT repeal went through fully. Now, you may or may not agree with the trade-off, but it wasn’t just he didn’t want to pay the political price for them.

          Also, Obama has never said he wants all of the tax cuts to expire. Social democrats like me I do, but Obama, like the majority of the American people want the top tax bracket to go back to the socialist rates of the mid-90’s. 🙂Report

  5. Robert Cheeks says:

    Actually, there was nothing wrong with the Articles of Confederation. The so-called ‘convention’ was supossed to be designed just to make certain corrections in the beloved Articles. Why did they ‘close’ the doors and not allow the press or the citizenry, well maybe because there was devilry afoot!Report

    • No sir, no sir, no sir. If there were angels, then the Framers did the work of angels in 1787 and we all owe them a debt of gratitude. The AOC’s were so weak states were literally sending troops across one anothers’ borders to enforce duties; the national government was perpetually short of money because the several states all contributed to it only voluntarily; consequently, they spent more time trying to arm their own militias to use against each other than they did raising money to pay for a real navy to protect themselves against a still-resentful Britian, an ambitious and legitimately-hungry-for-repayment France, a tottering but still powerful Spain, and a far-from negligible Holland. Not to mention the corsairs of the Barbary Coast. We needed and still need a strong enough central government to govern the entire nation. Otherwise, we’d be Europe West still — and parts of us would be in the Commonwealth yet.Report

    • Jon Rowe in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      Indeed, Patrick Henry and the other Anti-Federalists smelt a rat.Report

  6. Kolohe says:

    ” But, as states with term limits have learned, a revolving door of wave-riders and dilettantes is no way to run a government.”

    I disagree with this, and I’m sorta surprised you buy into this, Mr. Van Dyke. I’m not in favor of dilettantism, of course, but I am in favor of intelligent hard working amateurs running the ‘board of directors’ of government. If we need to have professional politicians to have a republic. then we can’t have a republic – or won’t, after a while.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Kolohe says:

      We have professionals running everything else on the planet, why not government? Sorry, the idea of the citizen legislator died back when being a legislator became a full-time job.

      The only thing term limits do is make lobbyists even more powerful because guess what, there are no term limits for lobbyists so they never leave.Report

      • Agree, more or less. If a politician is corrupt enough that s/he would inspire one to propose term limits, either the people will vote their butt out of office or, feeling that it’s overall worth it to have the SOB anyway, they won’t. That’s a choice they’ve a right to make. Besides, as George Wallace showed, a term limit doesn’t keep a kingpin from running the show.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Elias Isquith says:

          Or Vladimir Putin.

          Semi serious question: Should we have professional voters, too?

          Completely serious proposal: One Senator from each state should be selected by lottery from a list of volunteers.

          Addendum – regardless of the expertise that is or is not required, there is still the fact that the particular legislators (and executives) in office are not, in the main, indispensable people. The pool of expertise, experience, and talent that *could* be members of Congress (and the state legislatures) is far larger than the pool that actually is a member. Particularly with the House, for example, having an 80% re-election rate in good times and bad. (I believe the state houses are somewhat similar).

          Plus, for example, if Ted Kennedy would have retired in 2006, after 44 years of faithful service, the Democrats would have not had to have a special election in a political head wind. And retained a fillibuster proof majority for a few more months. (and Byrd turning over to a new generation would have extended it for a few more)Report

          • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Kolohe says:

            Actually, I’m in favor of compulsory voting. I realize it’d be completely unconstitutional, but hey, some conservatives want an amendment to allow school prayer. Works well in Australia and to head off complaints, conservatives even manage to win there. 😛

            As for the rest, yes, I like continuity within in an institution. One problem we saw with the recent new GOP congressman is they didn’t know how negotiations with an opposing party actually work and as a result, we almost went into default.

            As for your final point, yeah, bad timing happens. That still doesn’t mean any legislator who continues to receive popular support should be tossed out of office based on an arbitrary number of terms or an age.Report

            • NoPublic in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              I honestly don’t see how compulsory voting is unconstitutional. Can you elucidate?Report

            • Art Deco in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

              some conservatives want an amendment to allow school prayer.

              After a board of judges decided that to extinguish the local option of school districts and

              1. Declare that a clause which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” applies to an organ of local government, and

              2. Declare that a schoolteacher uttering a generic prayer is an activity equivalent to compulsory tithing and fines for recusancy.

              If we had an honest judiciary, no amendment would be necessary.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        I think you will find on inspection that lobbyists require time to develop relationships with legislators.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        > Sorry, the idea of the citizen legislator
        > died back when being a legislator
        > became a full-time job.

        Given that they spend half their time raising money, and that the legislative process puts people on committees based upon something other than their competency and basic knowledge of the subject under committee, I think that you can take steps to alleviate this problem. Somewhat.Report

  7. Vertov says:

    I’ll throw this out.

    The separation-of-powers doctrine is very expensive. The philosophy of dividing powers extends to dividing our intelligence networks and law enforcement agencies, both federal and state. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to combine the entire intelligence community into two or three agencies?

    And why shouldn’t we join the other Anglo-speaking nations and go parliamentary? Why should we deal with these two houses when one would do?

    On the other hand, the system as its set up forces current voters to confront their former selves (the people who voted in 2008 are not the ones who voted in 2010).


    • Burt Likko in reply to Vertov says:

      Italy — 61 governments in 66 years.Report

    • Art Deco in reply to Vertov says:

      You are confounding ‘separation of powers’ with federalism. Division of tasks between central, provincial, and local government is pretty much universal, bar in small insular countries and city-states. An elective executive with a veto over legislation, bicameralism, and judicial review are not universal.

      It is the federal government which maintains 16 separate intelligence services. The state and local governments do not have intelligence services. That problem has little to do with separation of powers or federalism, but with the unwillingness of politicians to adjudicate between competing bureaucracies and with problems inherent in constructing an intelligence gathering apparat.

      And you are right, the whole business imposes tremendous transactions costs while making it difficult or impossible to fix responsibility for much of anything. It is difficult to see the benefits of it by making comparative assessments and defenders of the system are commonly wont to quote the prospective (and thus speculative) rationales offered in The Federalist, as if no one’s experience with constitutional government in the intervening centuries mattered.

      Of the thirty or so most durable constitutional systems, a grand total of four (the United States, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Botswana) make use of separation of powers. Bicameralism is modal, not universal; bicameralism where the legislative chambers have equal powers is atypical; bicameralism where the upper house is the more influential is unique. I suspect you would have to undertake a most extensive inquiry ‘ere you would discover an appellate judiciary as officious as the one we’ve got.

      The notion that Mr. Madison et al concocted the optimal political order is hollow.Report

  8. Steve S. says:

    “A parliamentary system would have swept a Tea Party government into power in 2010.”

    Why would a Tea Party movement have even existed if its historical antecedents had never existed?Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Steve S. says:

      Bingo. If we had a MMP parliamentary system with a strong executive, there’d probably be a long-running Libertarian Party that was the functional equivalent of the German FDP. The truth is, multi-party democracies are far less strikingly partisan than two-party democracies because it’s a lot harder to make 4 different parties, two of whom you’ll probably have to make deals with, the evil Other.Report

      • My main issue with multiparty democracies (excluding when they become permanent coalitions) is that you don’t know who the party you vote for is going to align themselves with in order to form a government. If I’m stuck between Republicans and Democrats, I know that one option includes this combination of things I agree with and don’t while this other option contains this other combination. In a multiparty system, if I vote for the Red Tory Party they could end up forming a government with the Liberal Heathen Party instead of the Blue Tory Party, when if given the choice I totally would have voted for the Blue Tory Party. Or less fictitiously, I might vote for the LDP because I prefer it to Labor, but the last thing I want is to hand power to the Conservatives. But I don’t know that’s what the LDP is going to do until after the election. Whereas I know by voting for a Republican for congress will end up being a vote for a Boehner speakership or a Democrat for a Pelosi speakership.Report

        • WT: LDP. WTF? LOL. LSMFT.—TVDReport

        • Art Deco in reply to Will Truman says:

          That might be true in Israel and the Low Countries and perhaps some of the eastern European countries where the party system is inchoate. However, established multi-party systems tend to have a pattern of alignments which is generally predictable and which varies only on long cycles.Report

          • Burt Likko in reply to Art Deco says:

            Doesn’t that go to the political culture rather than the form of government? And if it is the case that multi-party systems form durable alignments, aren’t those alignments typically bipolar? Even in the least-stable systems like Italy and Israel (and I suspect Iraq, although it’s too early to tell yet) the hyperfragmentation of parties tends to coalesce into pro- and anti-government factions.Report

          • Will Truman in reply to Art Deco says:

            If it fell into permanent (or semi-permanent) coalitions, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But Jesse brings up Libertarians, which would likely not be in any permanent coalition (best case: a separation of the Red Libertarian and Blue Libertarian parties). Another case is the Bloc Quebecois, which is theoretically a left-leaning party but is largely outside the general bidirectional gamut.

            (And, of course, there remains the the British example, wherein two left-of-center parties won and a right-of-center government was formed.)

            In the case of permanent coalitions without fluidity, though, I can think of reasons it might be preferable, but I’m not sure how it would really be too different. Either way, it’s Coalition A or Coalition B.Report

            • Art Deco in reply to Will Truman says:

              You have a trade-off. Multiparty systems allow you to select an organization closer your preference, but with less liklihood that its program will be enacted.

              Note, the coalitions might apply with regard to the national government but not provincial or local governments. Also, a multiparty system might allow competition to continue in localities which would be the exclusive property of one party or another under a two-party system.Report

            • Rufus F. in reply to Will Truman says:

              Will, the mention of a Tea Party in a parliamentary system immediately made me think of the Bloc Quebecois. As I understand it, they do tend to be somewhat isolated by the nature of their agenda, but when they push for something that everyone sees as reasonable (i.e. anything that’s not separatism) they do okay and they have been able to form coalitions with the Liberals and NDP, which is why the Conservatives have been running adverts up here suggesting the Liberals support separatism. As a third party, maybe the Tea Party could do something similar?Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Steve S. says:

      Exactly, such a scenario wouldn’t have occurred in a historical vacuum, it would have been the culmination of sweeping Democrat rule. Which means Obama and co. would have had the opportunity to put their full agenda in place and either marginalize the Tea Party or be fully, justifiably responsible for a Tea Party coup.

      Instead, we have two political bodies that are continually out of sync, people continue to get madder, and nothing continues to get done.Report

  9. Tom Van Dyke says:

    To Mr. Trizzlor, et al.: The Ratcheting Effect, unaddressed in the OP. On domestic policy, we had 2 major ratchets under FDR and LBJ, where their control and command of not only the government but of public sentiment resulted in “progressive” goals becoming the new status quo

    Even the Tea Party, the sharpest edge of “conservatism” isn’t about rolling back the New Deal, or even significantly against rolling back the Great Society, which includes Medicare.

    “Conservatism” is funny that way, and so is our structure of government.

    Taking the long view here, a step back, you know, the 274-yr stare.

    As for the rest of the schemes that came out of the woodwork, most were along the lines of “If you can’t win the game, change the rules.” I hear it, but don’t feel it.

    I’m still open on the question of term limits. I didn’t vote for the man either time—although I voted Dukakis ’88 against GHWB—but it’s not self-evident to me that Bill Clinton should have been barred from running for a 3rd term, that the 22nd Amendment is a manifestly good idea.

    I’m disinclined to muck with the Constitution any further with re-inventions and bright perfectionist ideas, absent a reeeeeeeeally strong case. As any author knows, there comes a point of monkeying with it that you only make your text worse, not better.Report

    • North in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      What’s your position on the 18th ammendment Tom?

      A minor quibble: the elections in Wisconsin, with the Democrats retaining all of their recall challenged Senators and the GOP retaining most of theirs, seems to me to indicate not much beyond how hard it is to get recalls to work and how powerful incumbency is.

      Beyond that quibble, however, I don’t have any issue with your post. Good job.Report

  10. Art Deco says:

    What’s your point? France reconstitutes its ministry about every 30 months, Canada about every three years, and Great Britain every four years. There is local variation in the cohesion of political parties and federation and in the array of such formations. Why is bad-as-it-gets your preferred example?Report

  11. Anderson says:

    I like this thought, though I still find Congressional gridlock excruciating. I’m reading a biography of Andrew Jackson now and it’s incredible to hear how many prominent Washington politicians of the time (Clay, Calhoun, Webster, etc) thought the end of democracy was near during the eight years of the Jackson presidency. He was turning the country into his fiefdom, defying the senate, and stomping on the constitution…so on and so forth. Seems a little over the top today. Much like how apocalyptic renderings of our current governmental problems will be seen in the future. America’s economy might be on a long-term decline in this globalized world, but I think our basic government structure will survive in tact for many many years.Report