The Constitution is Old

Related Post Roulette

74 Responses

  1. Avatar Kim says:

    Paul O’neil, Former Treasury Secretary under George W Bush, Alcoa President, RAND President, called the Tea Party “America’s version of Al’Quaeda Terrorists.”

    … something about pittsburgh seems to bring out the mad irishmen.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      A former cabinet secretary said something stupid. This is interesting why?Report

      • Avatar Just John says:

        Agreed that calling the Tea Party “America’s version of Al’Quaeda Terrorists” is silly hyperbole — actually, it’d be nice if it were true that it weren’t hyperbolic. But anything Paul O’Neil says is worthy of note because he was such a fiscally sane conservative that he had to be kicked out of the G.W. Bush administration pretty early on.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          … it’s not nearly as hyperbolic as you would like to believe. 20% of the reps couldn’t be talked out of “No Compromise” because their Jesus Representatives said “everything’s going to be fine.” they wouldn’t even listen to wall street!

          And what they were trying to do, with the no compromise, amounts to economic terrorism — the last entity who tried it was China, and they got slammed down hard enough that they shut up good.Report

        • Avatar Art Deco says:

          I seem to recall him globetrotting with Bono.Report

  2. I am shocked—shocked!—to see that Peter Wehner has responded in a manner indicating a less-than-wholehearted interest in reasoned debate, regardless of partisan affiliation or culture war point-scoring.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    Well yes, it’s pretty much moot. The US cannot (and certainly would not) switch to a parlimentary system.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      But I think there should be a genuine concern about the widning under-representation of large states. Texas would be the lynchpin of any consensus on that.Report

  4. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    Just a random point. Portugal, Spain, and Ireland all had perfectly reasonable debt-to-gdp rations and were in fact running surpluses prior to the worst recession in 70 years. The half-assedness of the Euro made things go boom from there.Report

  5. Avatar Brion Emde says:

    A lot of these problems would be made better, automatically, by increasing the size of the House of Representatives. It was a huge mistake to freeze the size of the house in 1913, and as this post suggests, it just gets less and less representative every day.

    Some of the benefits:

    1) Better, more local representation
    2) Easier and cheaper to challenge incumbents. If the house were big enough, even you or I, with the backing of the community, could make a run for a house seat.
    3) Harder for big money interests to buy up the congresspeople. See point #2. If it is easier to mount an effort to run against the entreched powers, they are going to be harder for the big money to control.
    4) An increase in the size of the house would help correct the skew between the more and less populous states, at least in the house. If we doubled the size of the house, CA would probably end up with close to 100 house members while WY would probably still have a single representative. Increasing the size further would make it more reflective of the population differences.
    5) Since the Electoral College is based on the number of Senators and Reps, it too would become more representative of the population differences and clout of the states.

    All of this could be done without a constitutional change. What would be required is for our little Princes and Princesses in the Congress to just vote to increase the size of the house. They won’t, of course, unless we make them.

    The House was intended to be the “People’s House” and it has become just another way for the entrenched interests to tighten their control. We need to take back the House, for the People.

    See for more informationReport

  6. Avatar James Hanley says:

    “no country with a presidential system has a triple-A rating from all three major ratings agencies.”

    While Zakaria’s basic point is correct, I need to be the pedantic political scientist here and point out that just because the U.S. has a president does not mean we have a presidential system. The U.S. is sui generis–academic books discussing this have titles like “America the Unusual,” and “The American Anomaly.” Real presidential systems have a president that dominates the legislature; only the U.S. has a system that combines a president with non-dominance.

    This is a feature, not a bug, of the Constitution. Madison’s original proposal was effectively a parliamentary system, with the president being selected by the legislature. Gouverneur Morris argued that would lead to “intrigues” and cabals, and since many were worried that the legislature would, left to its own devices, become too powerful, they separated the presidency so it could act as a check on Congress–but they didn’t want it to be strong enough to dominate Congress. That was the actual origin of our “separation of powers” structure.

    Zakaria’s critique is not new (which is not mean to belittle him)–it has been a prominent critique for over a century, since Woodrow Wilson’s doctoral dissertation criticizing congressional dominance over the presidents of the 19th century, and advocating a parliamentary system, became prominent. And the American Political Science Association published a report in 1950 (“Toward a More Responsible Two Party System”–the association’s ill-fated foray into trying to speak with one voice in current political affairs) making a similar critique.

    And it’s all a perfectly legitimate critique, because each of its criticisms is correct. The problem with the critique is that it consistently fails to ask whether there are advantages to our “Presidency but non-presidential” system. It assumes the superiority of parliamentary systems, without remembering their weaknesses. It may be that in fact our system is inferior–after all, we were the first movers in the grand experiment of democratic governance, and we don’t often expect the first tinkerers to come up with the best final product. And of course none of the other 100+ democracies/quasi-democracies in the world have adopted our model (although failure of others to adopt it could conceivably just be evidence that humans only rarely get politics right). Nevertheless, I do get irked at those who argue for a parliamentary system without considering it’s weaknesses while only emphasizing our system’s weaknesses. It’s an inappropriate comparison: the best of option A vs. the worst of option B.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      The U.S. is sui

      And thus as screwed up as the PIIGS.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      It’s an inappropriate comparison: the best of option A vs. the worst of option B.

      Call me lazy, but what are the benefits of the US system again? The criticism is that checks and balances just multiply interest groups, foster corruption and create the equivalent of regulatory capture. Now, an obvious failure point in a classical parliamentary system is that without a written constitution, it seems more likely that majorities can screw over minorities.

      The question is not exactly the best of A vs the worst of B. Instead, we are looking at actual implementations of A vs actual implementations of B. To paraphrase Edmund Burke the American founding fathers made a massive mistake when they deviated from a parliamentary system.Report

  7. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    > The way the system is set up it makes political
    > sense for Congress to pass a budget and than
    > maneuver to oppose the very spending they
    > called for in the first place.

    This is a fair observation. Not sure how this is corrected by tackling the Presidency, though.

    I’m with Brion. Make the House bigger.

    Also, it might help to add one Senator per state. Not that you’d get either of those to go over.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

      In a perfect world, I’d eliminate the Senate completely. In a slightly-less perfect world, I’d add a ‘bonus’ Senator for every 5 or 6 million people you have in your state. In a even less perfect world, I’d make the filibuster near toothless except in rare situations and make the Senate the majoritarian institution it was for a long, long time.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      I think that the point is if the legislature both appropriated AND spent the money, they’d have no one else to point the finger at. Everyone expects the President to have a legislation heavy agenda, keeping the office seperate only allows for endless proxy battles rather than actually implementing a policy or not, and then being accountable for the results.

      Only in the current system can Congress blame a President for the economy that they are responsible for (to the extent that any governing body should be “responsible” for or can effect the larger economy).Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I’m down on parliamentary systems of government and would resist Zakaria’s and Fallows’ proposals.

    The potential for internal instability is greater than in our current system.

    The potential for policies taking a longer view of the national interest is greater in a system where politicans serve longer terms are not tied to the immediate whims of popular sentiment.

    By which I mean — if we had a Parliamentary system, Michelle Bachmann would be our Prime Minister right now, whether for good or ill, and in a few months, it would be someone else.

    To stay on top in a parliamentary system requires a politician who has really good inside baseball skills — there would be more behind-closed-door maneuverings, not less. Our system imposes a lot more sunshine on the decision-making processes than do, say, Australia’s or the UK’s.

    I like that our parties are weak, and that they seem to always produce maverick members. Some are less maverick-y than they like to portray themselves, but there are people in each party who will propose ideas not within the orbit of the party leadership. Every once in a while, those wildcard ideas have the germs of really good ideas in them. But parliamentary systems require strong, disciplined parties, and that means everyone parrots the party line or they get voted off the island.

    And while I understand Fallows’ point that the Senate is significantly antidemocratic and a periodic obstacle to the formation of public policy, that is a feature and not a bug. We have a republic, not a democracy, and the rules of the Senate are structured to force people of opposing points of view to listen to one another and deal with one anothers’ concerns. The majority is still the majority, but it is required to take the concerns of the minority into account when fashioning policy, instead of simply running roughshod over the concerns of everyone else without a second thought. It is a deliberative body, not a representative one.

    I can’t say as I see any particular harm in having three Senators rather than two from each state, if they keep their six-year staggered terms, but I also don’t see any particular benefit.

    I do see some benefit coming from separating Senators from particular states so as to make them represent more equal-sized blocs of voters. The downside here is that someone would have to draw interstate district maps or otherwise divide up the country to elect Senators, which could lead to gerrymandering and reduced turnover in the Senate and thus ossification of its deliberative function.

    But while its non-majoritarian ways are sometimes frustrating, and some of the individuals elected to high office are often very much to my distaste, I like the Senate more than I dislike it and I like the Congressional-Presidential system more than I dislike it.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

      The problem is that in modern times, the idea that 40% of the Senate could stop all business is an invention of the last decade or so. Look at the history of filibusters since World War II. LBJ didn’t worry about getting sixty votes when passing Medicare, all strategy was about getting that 51st vote. In addition, the Senate was far less polarized back in the days of a Senate that worked.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        If what you object to is the filibuster rule, then the solution is not to abandon the idea of a bicameral Congress with a source of power independent from the President’s. The solution would be to change the Senate’s internal rules to prohibit filibusters.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          There haven’t been any filibusters since January of 2009. The Democrats have merely failed to amass the 60 votes required for Senate approval.Report

          • Avatar NoPublic says:

            I’m not a whore. I just take cash. And have sex. In that order.

            A difference that makes no difference is no difference.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              You have foolish clients. In the movies, the money stays on the nightstand in plain view of both parties until the deed is done.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:


          > I can’t say as I see any particular harm in
          > having three Senators rather than two from
          > each state, if they keep their six-year
          > staggered terms, but I also don’t see any
          > particular benefit.

          Dilution enables (potentially) better coverage on the committees.

          You may counter with the point that there are too many committees, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Also: it’s a lot easier to populate, say, a committee on technology something or other with people that might know something about the topic if you have a few more bodies.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      Simply put, Zakaria is an idiot. He’s a partisan hack pretending to be a cosmopolitan intellectual.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      “We have a republic, not a democracy, and the rules of the Senate are structured to force people of opposing points of view to listen to one another and deal with one anothers’ concerns. The majority is still the majority, but it is required to take the concerns of the minority into account when fashioning policy, instead of simply running roughshod over the concerns of everyone else without a second thought. It is a deliberative body, not a representative one.”

      The idea of a deliberative body is antiquated. Back before large staffs, policy think tanks, and Google search engines, I could see the need to get smart and/or thoughtful people into a room to hash out a problem.

      Thing is, they don’t do that anymore (though this super committee may revive that) and I’m not sure what need there is to really deliberate.

      Take all the news from the “health care debate.” What it really boiled down to was months months of covering political maneuvering. Everyone new the objections to various plans going in, and the only thing to change was the leverage of either side to get what they wanted. And the Affordable Care Act seems like a perfect example of a compromise that takes the worst ideas from everyone and pulls them together. I’d have preferred a hyper-free market solution or single payer.

      At least then, if the system didn’t work after so many years, we’d have a clearer idea of what went wrong.Report

  9. Avatar Art Deco says:

    This is a topic on which there is very little creative thinking. It is among my confederates an axiom that the constitutional architecture is absolutely optimal and constructed by Solons without equal in any era. The country will be in a Mad Max world before any of them reconsider these notions.

    A constitutional amendment modifying the legislative process, the budgeting process, and the electoral calendar would likely suffice, however.Report

  10. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    IIRC, the members of the Senate were never supposed to “represent the people”, they were supposed to represent the interests of the state governments, until the 17th Amendment came alone (the result of states being stupid about appointing senators). Technically, the senators still represent the interests of the state as a whole in order to act as a check against the tyranny of the majority. I shudder to think what our country would be like if CA could field a football team of senators, instead of a tennis match.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      I shudder to think what our country would be like if CA could field a football team of senators, instead of a tennis match.

      A number of occidental countries have unicameral legislatures and in most of those who do not, the second chamber’s approval is unnecessary or the 2d chamber can be overruled by multiple ballots in the first chamber or by the mutual assent of the 1st chamber and the ministry. Do you find Denmark and New Zealand to be shudder worthy?Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        My shudder is not in regard to the structure, but rather the ability of a distant corner of the country to drive the majority of policy for the rest. Denmark & New Zealand are very small, and AFAIK relatively homogenous. The federal system was put in place for a reason.Report

        • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

          A distant corner of the country that has over 10% of the population of the US. Yes, California should have a bigger role in public policy than South Carolina. Just like Texas should have a bigger role than Vermont.Report

          • Avatar Art Deco says:

            I cannot figure how California’s 52 member House delegation are going “to drive the majority of policy for the rest” (meaning the other 383 House members).Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              If you got all 52 members of California’s House delegation in a room together, they still couldn’t agree on anything. I doubt that they could form a consensus to order pizza.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                If you got any 52 people in a room, the chances you could get a consensus to order pizza wouldn’t be great to start out with. Whether they could act to place an order under the rules of the California House is yet another question.

                A perhaps even more interesting question is whether a consensus to order pizza would be reached in a room in which only the Democratic caucus or the Republican caucus of the California House had been gathered.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                ‘Scuse me. I was reading this as referring to the California legislature. But I think the point stands.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Any Republican who joined the Democrats in ordering a pizza would be primaried. 🙂Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko says:

                Democratic caucus’ pizza order: 2 large veggie supremes, 1 large gruyere cheese with roasted pine nuts and wilted spinach, 1 medium vegan tofu de-lite with gluten-free crust.

                Republican caucus’ pizza order: 3 large Red Meat Specials. Five 2-liter bottles of iced tea.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                If one of them has a gun and an irritable disposition, I bet you can narrow it down in a hurry.Report

        • Avatar Art Deco says:

          Actually, New Zealand has an aboriginal minority half-again as large as our black minority. As for this country, there are some subcultural fissures, but a great deal of common ground as well. In the words of Bullwinkle, “Hey Rocky, haven’t we been through this town before?”Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          Art Deco is quite right, in addition to a significant Maori population, we have significant Pacific Island and Asian populations (particularly Chinese and Indian). Denmark might be homogeneous (I honestly don’t know), but New Zealand is a New World country, and I think we’re as ethnically diverse as the US. Data is here.

          Size of course, is a separate issue.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      Before I could support proportionate representation in the Senate, I would need to see the federal government’s role reduced — and guaranteed to stay reduced — in land and water use policy. I live in one of those western states where the feds directly own 40% of the land, and indirectly control what can be done with a significant amount of the rest through their policy choices for the land they own. Absent the modest leverage that the Senate provides, land and water use here would simply be dictated by a dozen large (in population) states, all a thousand miles away. Why not just make us a territory again?Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        You mean one of those western states that gets more in federal handouts than it pays in federal taxes?Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          If it matters, then no, one of those western states that pays significantly more in federal taxes than it receives in spending.

          Such figures are particularly suspect in the West (Census Bureau definition, Rocky Mountain states to the Coast, and ignoring Hawaii and Alaska which are even more peculiar). Some states have very large federal facilities relative to the size of their populations: reservations, large research labs, very large military bases, so forth — you can’t expect the state to pay for those. Some have climates such that large number of retirees from elsewhere move in, bringing large amounts of Social Security and Medicare with them. Surprisingly large numbers of military retirees who “discovered” how much they liked the West while stationed there.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

        Is it ok to sell off most of the gummint owned western lands to private bidness and individuals to pay down the debt? Is it ok to have all the US senators elected by the sundry state legislators rather than the unruly, mob?Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          To paraphrase WFB, instead of state legislators, I’s rather have senators elected by the first 80 convicts in that state’s largest prison. (Skipping the ones who are state legislators, of course.)Report

    • Avatar Member548 says:

      It seems often forgotten that this is the United States… not America.

      The original intent was to create a group of states that were banded together well enough to represent a unified power when faced with outside invasion, yet lose enough that states could end up with wildly different laws and ways of life.

      Direct election of senators ruined that intent.Report

  11. Avatar Jeff says:

    The downgrade occurred, Zakaria notes, because of political dysfunction

    Except that we now know that the downgrade occured as a premptive act because the Justice Dept were looking into S&P and were about to release a report. S&P downgraded because they know that Fox and the TPs don’t look at dates and would see the investigation as retaliatory, when it was the downgrade that did it.

    So we still have a “triple-A rating from all three major ratings agencies”.

    Since his premise is false (he might have known it was — the news of the probe was all over the news the day after this story was published), any conclusions reached from it are dubious at best.Report

  12. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    +1. Great post!Report

  13. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    I am shocked, shocked that Commentary published a denial of simple fact, preferring to blame everything on liberals.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      Jimmy Carter has been a preferred whipping boy for about 30 years now.Report

      • Avatar Jeff says:

        “Jimmy Carter has been a preferred whipping boy for about 30 years now.”

        Whenever the right can’t blame something on Clenis. (But after being out of office for 2 years, we can’t blame ANYTHING (yes, I’m shouting) at all on Bush. Somehow. (Mostly, IOKIYAR, I think.)Report

  14. Avatar Anderson says:

    I think one could ease some of the U.S. government’s partisanship and gridlock problems through means less radical than a new Constitutional convention. Two things that California has experimented with recently that are worth trying out elsewhere: the open primary (the top two candidates, regardless of party, face off in the general election) and the outsourcing of the Congressional district drawing process to an independent body (leading to fewer safe seats). Maybe make House elections less frequent too? Small measures, but with great potential. Eventually campaign finance will need to be dealt with as well, the large increases in monies spent on elections can’t keep increasing at this rate year after year. Not only does this favor interest groups, but it promotes a cynicism about democratic governance as well.Report

    • Avatar Alan Scott says:

      except, of course, that we won’t really know how successful the open primary will be until the next election, when it actually comes into effectReport

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      Money will be less of a factor going foward — ads don’t work as well, and information is just too easy and free to access. Whitman and Fiorino (sp?) are examples of money not really helping. Micheal Bloomberg or Donald Trump could spend their fortunes and still wouldn’t change what people think about them.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

        The person who spent the most money in open races still won an insane percentage of races last year though. Obviously, yes, Whitman and Fiornio didn’t win, but they were running as pretty conservative Republicans in California. If liberal x spent 20 million in Texas, he’d still lose.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Also, money is only about ads (though it’s a big part of it). It’s also about building a professional staff and an organization both deep and wide that’s able to get out the vote on the day of the election. (and before that, get more money). (this is Obama was able to beat Clinton, and run up the score – relatively speaking – when he defeated McCain)Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

      WTF is wrong with legislative gridlock? I wish we had more of it!
      And, we regulatory, that would serve a great and glorious purpose!Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        Gridlock is fine if you get stuck in the right place.

        But continual shifting and changing has the benefit of fixing a mistake later one, whereas gridlock leaves it to fester.

        One problem with gridlock is the irreversibility of most laws. Wouldn’t you like to see the Federal Registrar undergo a massive decrease in size Bob?

        I know I would, but I don’t see that happening with gridlock.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

          Yes, E.C., I would like to see the FR reduced. However, first things first. Let’s stop Barry and the commie-dems from promulgating anymore laws that result in higher and higher unemployment. When the regime is removed, we can clean up their regulatory mess.Report

  15. Avatar Renee says:

    Is the constitution old? Or is it being used in a manner for which it simply wasn’t designed? A shiny new Prius isn’t going to function that well for hauling around your 5th wheel camper, but I wouldn’t blame Toyota when it is ineffective.
    The constitution was designed to implement a limited federal government. The dynamism and quick adaptation was meant, by and large, to happen at the state or non-governmental level. Most other countries implemented National governments – different design. Better at quickly implementing national policy.
    Both major parties want to use the government to implement their view of how society should be and the constitutional, federal system wasn’t designed for that purpose.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      Renee, at this point the machinery does not function to produce a proper fiscal plan, something necessary in 1789 as today.Report

      • Avatar Renee says:

        Art Deco – I think we agree. At the risk of beating my admittedly strained analogy to death: the prius (or 1789 horse drawn carriage, for that matter) is designed to drive down the road. Just not with a 4 ton camper in tow. Now it can’t go down the road at all. Or more precisely, the machinery can’t produce a fiscal plan because it is financing much more of the economy than it was designed to handle.Report