In The Genius of America, Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes write:
The message we are hearing is that our government does not work. The message we should be hearing is that our government is a reflection of our own divisions. What we need is not a new system of government. We need a renewed willingness to work out our differences and find compromises, consensus and that other now-popular phrase, common ground.
While that last sentence might sound like a naive call to higher principle, the authors argue that finding compromise amid conflicting interests is what the United States has done superbly well for more than 200 years—but not so well lately. They believe that political developments of the past few decades are starting to undermine the U.S. Constitutional system, which manages conflicts by a process of checks, balances, and compromise.
For example, Lane and Oreskes critique the rise of voter initiatives, such as California’s Proposition 13:
It won in a landslide among those who voted. But even so, fewer than 50 percent of California’s registered voters cast a yes vote for the proposition. Thus a minority of registered Californians decided to reduce tax burdens and and limit the capacity of the government to increase its future revenues.
It was appealingly easy to adopt this initiative. There was none of the scrutiny of normal legislative process nor the need for coalition building and compromise. No committee of one legislative house and then of the second could block its path to a vote. No requirement that a bill pass two separate legislative houses stood in the way. No executive stood waiving a veto pen. No colleagues were hovering around demanding compromise for support. No lobbyists were demanding changes. No time-consuming hearings from which concerns of the public or experts had to be addressed and weighed. No long public debates in which legislators had to explain why they favored or disfavored the issue. No arcane procedural rules blocked a vote either in a committee or legislative house. No worries that a wrong step might anger constituents. No competition among this idea and the thousands of other ideas wanting legislative attention. In short, the initiative did not have to pass through any of the screens that in the legislature protect against the tyranny of the majority or even the minority and require deliberation and consensus.
Although voter initiatives are a state-level phenomenon, the authors note the existence of a proposed National Initiative, associated with the long-shot presidential campaign of former Senator Mike Gravel. The authors are not forecasting doom at the hands of Mike Gravel, but they hold him as a symbol of what’s going wrong: a former Senator trying to make government better by short-circuiting it.
Another interesting example from relatively recent history:
In the mid-1980s, politicians were worried about the federal deficit and about the danger that voters would punish them for it. But there was no consensus on the steps to take to curb it: raise taxes, cut defense spending, cut social spending. So they adopted Gramm-Rudman, what [political author John] Ehrman calls “one of the most disgraceful and irresponsible laws ever passed.” The law gave to a non-elected official the power to simply cut the budget if the deficits didn’t shrink. This [cutting] was enacted without any legislative process. No hearings. No committee debate or vote. “Congress and the White House abandoned their political responsibilities for making fiscal decisions, and rushed instead to hand power to automatic, technical mechanisms,” wrote Ehrman. “This is hardly how republican institutions are intended to function.”
But during virtually the same period, Congress also enacted a tax reform measure that made substantial strides toward a simpler and fairer tax code. The measure demonstrated that “when politicians acted seriously, the political system was able to deal with complex issues quite well.” But this accomplishment was not the product of public virtue. “None of those in the process rose above party or personal interests.” The parties advocated their positions as hard as they could and then, recognizing that a winner-take-all attitude would fail, compromised. Tax reform was the system working just as the framers had designed it to. “In contrast, Gramm-Rudman was the product of panic and a desire to circumvent politics.”
The mention of “public virtue” touches a key theme in the book, that the genius of the Constitution is how it channels individuals’ and groups’ private self-interests into public virtue. The book’s first part recounts how the framers got there, as they learned from the flaws of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution’s predecessor.
The Articles assumed that each state would itself act with public virtue, doing what was best for the national interest. But there was no enforcement mechanism, so individual states often pursued their own interests, conflicting with each other and the national interest. This system rarely and barely worked, to the point that during the Revolutionary War, the bickering states almost starved George Washington’s Continental Army.
As a result, the framers designed the Constitution to create public virtue without requiring it as an input. It would result from competition among self-interested groups and ideas. But instead of “winner take all,” the system would force deliberation and compromise among competing factions—thereby producing a best-possible consensus given the conflicting aims.
The authors demonstrate that the Constitution itself was the result of such a competitive, give-and-take process. This process did not produce the exact result that any side wanted at the time. But more than 200 years later, we can say that it obviously worked well.
Which brings us back to where we started. The authors are concerned that the American people and their representatives are losing touch with why our system has worked so well. The people see government gridlock and assume the system is broken. But what’s broken is the way the participants are playing—or not playing—their institutional roles.
In their most recent examples, the authors blame the second Bush administration for its ambitious moves to expand executive power without congressional—and in some cases judicial—oversight. In addition, from 2001 to 2006, the Republican congressional leadership “operated as the president’s floor leaders in the Congress, rather than his separate and coequal partners in government.”
These moves led to a “winner take all” environment, which is counterproductive in two ways. If the opposition has the votes, there’s gridlock; if the majority can push legislation through without compromise (as the authors believe was the case with the second Bush administration’s Iraq policy), then checks and balances have been defeated.
To be clear, the authors do not expect politicians to ignore their party in favor of their institutional roles. But the authors make the point that the reverse has not—and should not—be the case either:
Senator Harry S. Truman investigated President Roosevelt’s administration, and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson investigated President Truman’s administration. It was a Republican Senator, Howard Baker, whose incessant questions crystallized the belief that a Republican president knew more about Watergate than he had told. And it was a Democratic Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who blocked the Democratic president and his wife from their plan to overhaul American health care.
So we find the framers did not entirely succeed in removing the need for public virtue as an input to the political process. A willingness to play one’s institutional role—especially at critical times, when that role and one’s other interests may conflict—is necessary for the Constitution’s system to work. The authors call this our Constitutional Conscience, and they want American politics to get more Constitutionally Conscientious.
For those with further interest, here is a link to the book. The first part, which I glossed over, is worth the price of admission alone. It recounts how the Constitution emerged from a historic combination of big-thinking, practical problem-solving, and shrewd politicking. The book then examines how the Constitution adapted to the massive changes and challenges that came with America’s growth. Finally, it considers the recent challenges highlighted above, which the authors feel are novel and serious.