As anyone who reads my blogs and columns–or who has ever been a student in one of my classes–can attest, I have respect bordering on reverence for the American Constitution. But it is becoming painfully clear that some of the governing mechanisms required by that founding document no longer serve us. The Constitution was crafted, after all, to address the concerns of a very different age.
The dysfunctions of the system have been accelerating for some time, culminating in today’s parody of responsible government.
It is hard to avoid attributing every dysfunction of the moment to Donald Trump’s peculiar mix of reckless talk and often feckless action. But judged on a scale of institutional breakdown, the presidency—even this presidency—is not our biggest problem….
The budget process has never been so hobbled. Not only did we come close to an unprecedented government shutdown during single-party control of Congress and the presidency, but this year has also marked the first time in the four-plus decades since the modern budget process was created that neither chamber has even considered a budget resolution.
And the trouble didn’t start in just the past few years. Presidential hyperactivity in recent decades has masked a rising tide of dysfunction—giving us policy action to observe and debate while obscuring the disorder that was overtaking our core constitutional infrastructure. It kept us from facing what should be an unavoidable fact: Congress is broken.
As the author points out, whatever measure you apply–legislation passed, public approval, member satisfaction, even just committee work or each house’s ability to live by its own rules–will lead you to the same conclusion. And while there are many reasons for the institution’s abject failure to perform, the Constitutional language is among them.
The Constitution gives the Congress powers but not responsibilities. The president is required to execute the laws and tasked with responding to changing world events on the country’s behalf. The courts have to consider cases and controversies put before them and apply the laws accordingly. But while the general scope and reach of the Congress’s authorities are laid out in Article I, the institution is not really told what it must do within that scope. That’s because the assumption was that Congress would naturally seek to control things and run as far and as hard in pursuit of power as the Constitution allowed, so that only boundaries were needed.
As everyone who has studied the Constitutional Convention knows, the Framers worried most about the legislature (the “most dangerous branch”), and the prospect that it would run rampant.
Today’s Congress simply defies that expectation. It suffers from a malady the framers never quite imagined when they thought about politics: a shortage of ambition. Members are certainly eager to retain their offices, but they seem oddly indifferent to using those offices.
The article goes on, and I encourage you to click through and read it, but even though I think much of the analysis is accurate, I also think it is incomplete. The fecklessness of our current political class is also fostered by other structural defects required or permitted by the Constitution: the Electoral College and the primary authority of state governments for elections and redistricting, to name just two.
The problem is, if Americans were to engage in a redesign of the Constitution–if efforts to hold another Constitutional Convention (an effort currently underway) were to succeed–it is almost certain that the damage done would vastly outweigh any improvements. The people most eager to rewrite our national charter are precisely the people who shouldn’t be allowed near it. It isn’t just the theocrats and the “states rights” bigots, worrisome as they are, but well-meaning folks who have very limited understandings of economic and social realities–the “balanced budget” advocates and libertarian opponents of regulation and social welfare programs, among others.
Legal structures are inevitably reflective of deep-seated cultural assumptions, and cultural changes come slowly. Until such time as an effort to modernize the Constitution can be undertaken in a less politically toxic, uninformed and polarized environment–undertaken by civically-literate, knowledgable and public-spirited “renovators”–the best we can do is “eject and elect.”
We need to eject from Congress the sorry excuses who are currently failing to act responsibly, and we need to elect people who are willing and able to discharge their responsibilities.
We need to vote as if our futures depend upon it. Because they do.