The federal government is a dysfunctional mess. In recent years we have witnessed a government shutdown, a U.S. credit rating downgrade due to politicians playing chicken with the debt ceiling, an incoherent response to rising healthcare premiums, and an inability to even fully staff the Supreme Court. This chaotic governance is damaging to the American republic both because it meaningfully decreases U.S. national power and because it destroys people’s faith in the government and democratic process. History instructs us that this kind of dysfunction leads to long-term decline and even revolution. For example, both Ancien Régime France and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist as political entities due to the myopic political infighting that characterized their governments in the 18th century. Fortunately, the U.S. is an immensely powerful and innovative country, and thus it is not too late to change and reform the system. The United States must move quickly, however, as continuing to muddle through will only exacerbate the current situation and make future reforms all the more difficult.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues in modern American politics is the high degree of party polarization. To be sure, a divided government in which different parties control the White House and the Congress does not guarantee gridlock. As Evan pointed out in a research paper posted to this blog, “not enough evidence exists to reject the null hypothesis that divided government has zero bearing on legislative output.” Thomas Mann and David Mayhew even argue that “Under certain conditions, divided party government can facilitate legislative action on pressing, politically difficult issues where blame-sharing is essential.” Nevertheless, while it is true that not all divided governments devolve into gridlock, most instances of gridlock can be traced back to divided government. This is particularly the case now, as the Republican party has essentially given up trying to cooperate with the Democratic president on anything. They fail to fulfill their constitutional obligation to review presidential appointments, they use their power to investigate non-issues like Benghazi, and they insert poison pills into every conceivable piece of legislation simply to acquire leverage and drum up the base. For example, the GOP recently added a religious liberty provision to the otherwise bipartisan 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, forcing a fight over an immensely important piece of legislation simply to tarnish Obama. This is not politics as usual; this is hijacking the government to achieve short-term partisan gains. As Thomas Mann argues in a recent piece for Brookings, “Republicans are now a radical, not conservative party – contemptuous of the policy inheritance of the past century; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; scornful of compromise; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition. Divided party government under this toxic brew is a recipe for willful obstruction and policy irresolution.”
However, partisanship does not offer a full explanation. It’s also crucial to consider the structure of the American government. As I have argued previously, the American political system is designed to limit decisive governance by artificially creating an excessive number of veto players. The entire American model is based on “checks and balances,” and while this prevents any one person from acquiring too much power, it also magnifies the power of partisans, allowing them to impede the policymaking process and effectively shut down the government. Legislative members can filibuster, the President can veto, the Supreme Court can rule legislation to be unconstitutional, the Senate can apparently unilaterally refuse to consider presidential appointments, and state governments can deliberately try to sabotage federal initiatives (as demonstrated by the Obamacare rollout). Indeed, it’s a minor miracle that anything gets accomplished at all. Personally, I believe that the United States should adopt a parliamentary system of government because that kind of system has far fewer veto players and therefore permits far more decisive governance. However, I’m skeptical that such a fundamental change in the structure of the American government could ever occur. Thus, here are some slightly less ambitious reforms that might nonetheless meaningfully improve American governance.
1. Core government responsibilities should be immune from extraneous riders, earmarks, and amendments. It is completely nonsensical that defense appropriations should in any way be tied to questions of religious liberty. That the U.S. military might not receive funding just because Republicans want to pick a fight with Obama over a domestic social issue is, in a word, absurd. Questions of taxation, infrastructure spending, and treaty negotiation should also be immune from this kind of partisan nonsense because these are core government responsibilities, and they can’t afford to be ignored simply because Republicans and Democrats want to have a spat over gay rights or abortion funding. Obviously attaching controversial riders to bigger pieces of legislation can be effective at creating leverage. And, this kind of strategy can sometimes be necessary to overcome gridlock: Issue linkage and horse trading allow for quid pro quos in which Democrats agree to support a Republican policy position in exchange for Republican support for a Democratic policy position. However, this only works if both sides are willing to give something up. Funding the military is not a gift to Democrats, it’s a fundamental responsibility of the government. Thus, the current NDAA negotiation is one in which the Republicans are yet again saying, “give us what we want or we will break the government.” This is not issue-linkage, this is simple petulance, and it is putting American soldiers at risk.
2. There should be a limited amount of time in which the Senate can review an executive appointment. If the Senate fails to review an appointment in a reasonable amount of time (somewhere between 50-100 days), the President would reserve the right to interpret their inaction as them waiving their rights to advise and consent and thus appoint the nominee unilaterally. In this way, we could avoid the absurd Merrick Garland shenanigans of the past year in which Congress failed to fulfill its constitutionally mandated responsibilities simply to acquire a short-term political gain. Garland is only the most high-profile example, however. Republicans have similarly refused to review hundreds of other executive appointees. This is unsustainable, as it leaves major agencies and judicial circuits lacking leaders empowered to make decisions. While deputies can fill in temporarily, these individuals are usually forced to act as caretakers and are largely prevented from making important or controversial decisions, leaving government agencies to stagnate. By forcing the Congress to do their job or risk losing their advisory privileges, this kind of reform would go a long way in leading to more effective governance.
3. Restrict certain bills to certain houses. For example, only allow the House of Representatives to draft bills regarding taxes and only allow the Senate to draft bills regarding military funding. Of course, these are just examples, and it’s certainly possible to argue for a different division of responsibilities. The exact delegation of roles is not important; that there is a delegation is important. This is because the current system can potentially see three bills concerning the same issue appear simultaneously, with the White House, Senate and House all drafting their own version. This leads to chaotic negotiations in which all three actors must coordinate and compromise on the wording and specific provisions in the final document actually signed into law. Given that this kind of compromise seems to be particularly challenging for lawmakers, it makes sense to consolidate the process by giving one house complete control over the drafting process. Then, the other house would simply need to give it an up or down vote, simplifying and streamlining the process.
None of these solutions are perfect, and I am certain that intelligent and informed people might disagree with my proposed reforms. Ultimately, the specific reforms are less important than reform in and of itself. The current system is far too slow, inefficient, and prone to myopic, self-interested politics to be sustainable, and current polarization is only exacerbating these structural weaknesses. We can no longer keep muddling through and applying band-aid solutions to fundamental institutional deficiencies. If the United States is to continue to thrive in the 21st century, lawmakers and academics must come up with big ideas to arrest the decay of U.S. political institutions. Otherwise, America might very well fall into terminal decline.