Constitution at root of political dysfunction

RelicWhat are the causes of our political dysfunction today? While some may find it hard to accept, one scholar says the Constitution itself is at the root of the problem.

TERRY MOE, a political science professor and Hoover senior fellow, argues that we need to give more expansive powers to the presidency. His point of view can be found in his new book, Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government – And Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency, which is co-authored with University of Chicago political scientist WILLIAM HOWELL.

According to Moe, “The United States of today is burdened with a government designed for a bygone era. The times have radically changed, but the core of the Constitution – separation of powers, with a parochial Congress at its center – has not, leaving the nation with a government that is out of sync with the society it is supposed to be governing. It is a relic of the past.”

He said the founders crafted a government 225 years ago that was designed for a simple agrarian society of just 4 million people. That framework may have been suitable for back then, but it is ill-equipped to address the complex problems of a modern, post-industrial society – immigration, globalization, persistent poverty, rising inequality and pollution, for example.

The nation, Moe believes, needs a government that can be responsive and effective in crafting durable solutions to the problems of modern times. But the system we have inherited is not even remotely up to the challenge, he and his co-author write.

Moe puts Congress right at the center of that dysfunction, describing it as a hapless decision-maker incapable of taking effective action on behalf of the nation. Legislators are electorally tied to their local jurisdictions, highly responsive to special interests and myopically concerned about the next election.

Moe believes that if the nation is to meet the vexing challenges of our times, the Constitution needs to be updated. This can be accomplished by a simple reform that shifts formal power in the direction of presidents – unlike legislators, he argues, presidents think in national terms about national problems, and their overriding concern for legacy drives them to seek effective policy solutions.

The authors recommend a constitutional amendment that would grant presidents universal fast-track authority over all policy matters (including appointments and budgets). Once presidents submit a proposal, Congress would be required to vote on it up or down, on a majoritarian basis, within a specified period of time. Presidents and their concern for effective government would move to the center of the decision process. Congress and its pathologies would move to the periphery.

In Moe’s view, the Constitution remains a truly remarkable achievement in the history of human governance. But it was never designed to provide a government for modern America, and the nation is heavily burdened by the antiquated government it did provide.

“The challenge,” the scholars write, “is to embrace a much healthier view of our admirable but outdated Constitution – and refuse to be prisoners of the past… [I]t is up to us to fashion political institutions that allow for effective governance in our times. The founders cannot save us. We must save ourselves.”

By Maria Thorbourne