The Introduction to Relic opens this way:
American government is dysfunctional . . . . As a decision-maker Congress is inexcusably bad . . . utterly incapable of taking responsible, effective action . . .
So why is this happening? The common view is that Congress’ problems are due to the polarization of the [political] parties over the last few decades. By this rendering, if the nation could move towards a more moderate brand of politics–say by reforming primary elections or campaign finance–Congress could get back to the way it functioned in the good old when it (allegedly) did a fine job of making public policy.
But this isn’t so. . . . The brute reality is that the good old days were not good. . . . Congress’ most fundamental inadequacies are not due to polarization. Nor are they of recent vintage. Congress is irresponsible largely because it is wired to be that way–and it’s wiring is due to Constitutional design.
[Congress’] pathologies are not really of it’s own making. They are rooted in the Constitution, and it is the Constitution that is the fundamental problem.
I have concerns over the growth of presidential power in the last few generations, but . . . I love it when writers undertake such magnificent and almost dashing glove-slaps to our received wisdom. Authors William Howell and Terry Moe teach at the University of Chicago and Stanford respectively, so this is not a talk-show rant. They write with an apolitical bent for the most part and take a broad view. They focus on clarity and concision and don’t try and dazzle us with their erudition.
I don’t think I agree with them, but I admire their efforts. We need more books with these strengths.
Their basic argument runs as follows:
Before the Revolutionary War each colony acted almost entirely independently of one another. No one had any idea of a “United States of America.” During the war we created the Articles of Confederation, which, while it created a national government, made it exceedingly weak.
This then, is their first main point. Yes, the Constitution created a stronger national government–but not that strong. We have to understand the Constitution’s grant of executive power not in a vacuum but in relation to the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution still allowed for states to have the pre-eminent place in people’s hearts.*
The design of our federal government reflects this by giving nearly all the most important powers to Congress. This in turn makes it very difficult to enact national policy. This was not a mistake. This is the exact intention of most of the founders (though not all, such as Alexander Hamilton, who argued for a much stronger executive at the Constitutional Convention).
When we manage to create a national policy, such policies get diluted, confusing, and sometimes absurd because of the fact that all laws have to come through Congress. Everyone wants their piece of pork, everyone needs something to crow about. The confusion of many laws, and the expense needed to enforce them, weakens government, expands bureaucracy, and lowers quality of life. Again, the authors don’t blame Congress for this. Our representatives have job of representing their districts, not the national interest.
The authors argue that Congress has never solved a national problem. It has either taken either national emergencies (like war, disasters, etc.) or unusually shrewd or charismatic presidents to get Congress to move. They concede that perhaps our form of government worked in the pre-industrial era when towns remained largely isolated from one another (though Congress certainly could not solve the slavery issue, the biggest contributor to the Civil War). But the Industrial Revolution created a new country that drew the states much closer together. We now think of ourselves as “Americans” and need national policies on a consistent basis. Again, we should not say that Congress will not solve them. Congress cannot solve them, just as pigs can’t fly. We have, in fact, many problems on the horizon that have existed for decades that Congress will never solve, such as Social Security reform, the tax code, the national debt, and so on. And while the American Revolution inspired a variety of democratic movements across the globe, no one has copied our system of government.** This should tell us something.
Their solution mirrors the simplicity of their writing. They know that rewriting the Constitution is impossible, and officially amending it very difficult. Instead they seek “fast-track” authority for certain kinds of legislation.
Lest we deride their analysis as overblown, the authors point out that we already recognize the foolishness of our constitutional design with international treaties and trade agreements. We give the president power to negotiate such agreements without congressional interference. Presidents then can present them to Congress for a simple “yes”/”no” vote.
The authors propose that we simply allow presidents to submit legislation to Congress involving national policy for this kind of yes/no vote. No pork, no earmarks, no preferments, no deals. Congress needs to keep its diseased hands away from issues like the national debt, health-care, and national defense. If such laws passed they would have the clarity and unity needed for effective policy.
That’s it. No fuss, no muss. It preserves the Constitutional role for Congress and merely expands slightly the powers of the executive.
The authors write with great force, but part of me wonders, has it really been so bad? Sure, the separation of powers brings problems, but America has a top notch military, technological innovation, a leading economy, a high standard of living, and so on. Yes, we have difficult social issues, but we also have much greater challenges in this regard than most other nations. Ok, we have rocky outcroppings in many parts of our history, but so too do other modern democracies.
It’s hard to disagree, however, that Congress annoys us like no other branch of government.
As much as I enjoyed the book, the authors missed the root question. Of course their suggestion would make government more efficient and policy more workable. The authors argue that their proposed alteration involves no real philosophical issue. We simply need something that works. Wanting a dishwasher that works, for example, need not involve politics, philosophy, or theology.
Part of my hesitation to jump in with the authors, however, lies with just these concerns. We should concern ourselves with more than whether or not something works. We should consider the implications of increased executive power. Many of the founders were philosophers as well as practical politicians. We owe it to our past to at least consider such things before going far beyond what they intended.
*I wonder if the authors would have agreed with Napoleon’s assessment of America while in exile on St. Helena in 1816. Napoleon foresaw the Civil War, among other things. He commented,
What is needed for national defense? Unity and permanence in government. America remains united for now due to their common interest of their emancipation from the English crown. But their existence as a great nation was impeded by their federal constitution. A dissonance exists between northern and southern states which reflects on the weakness of the federal principle. Either the national government will be strengthened by conquest, or else national unity will be broken by local interests and commercial rivalries.
**This is a good point, but America also had a unique historical situation that preceded their revolution.