Midterms: the enemy of change
A piece in TNR by law professor Sanford Levison gets Ross Douthat thinking about the subject of ammending the constitution. Apparently the professor is of the opinion that the American form of constitutional government is insufficiently democratic, especially with respect to the presidency. Ross writes:
I actually agree with the larger point of his post (and book) – namely, that the American constitutional system has the unfortunate tendency to leave us stuck with failed chief executives long after other systems would shove them out the door. The question is whether this problem is bad enough to require us to rewrite those “basic structures of government,” or whether those structures have shown such impressive and unprecedented durability that we’re best living with their faults and leaving well enough alone. Generally speaking, I’m in the camp that’s in favor of more constitutional tinkering, not less, and I think it’s a bad sign for American government that we’ve only managed to ratify one new amendment in the past thirty-five years, and that politicians have become accustomed to opposing new ones less on substance than on the grounds that we shouldn’t touch the precious, precious Constitution.
This is a good opportunity to bring up one of my own hobbyhorses on the general topic of the constitution, and the American polity’s seeming imperviousness to reform. The way I see it, if what one really wants is an American system that more readily accommodates change and reform, what one really needs to do is eliminate one of the constitution’s most democratic features: House elections every other year. My observation is that it is this feature, more than any other, that is the roadblock to change. Unlike their British counterparts, who can wait up to a half-decade before facing the voters (thereby giving strong medicine time to yield beneficial results the voters can perceive), members of the U.S. House of Representatives are never more than twenty-four months away from an election. This breeds great resistance to doing anything that might upset this or that interest group, or challenge in even the most tepid manner John Q. Public’s penchant for looking out for number one (a penchant that is shared by me, I might add).
One could envision voters rewarding, four or fiver years after gaining power, an administration that, say, raised gasoline taxes. After four or five years the satisfactory results of such a policy might, perhaps, be widely agreed upon by the voters. What one cannot envision is gasoline taxes going up by very much under our current constitutional arrangement, wherein any representative likely to agree to such legislation will be required, in a very short while, to face the angry, gasoline-guzzling voters who control his fate.
In short, if reform is your goal, what you need to do is reduce the surfeit of democracy in America.