Editor’s Note: William Howell is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Terry Moe is a political science professor at Stanford University. Together, they are the authors of “Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government—And Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency.” Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect their research for that book. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
Howell and Moe: Our founding fathers "cannot save us. We must save ourselves"
Give president "fast track" authority to foster more effective government, they urge
The media’s wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump and the presidential horse race is a distraction from the main event – namely, that American government is dysfunctional.
Electing a new president won’t bring us better governance. Something very different and more fundamental is needed: a more powerful presidency. Here is why.
It is easy to point to polarized parties or moneyed interests or corrupted politicians to explain our government’s profound ineffectiveness. But the bigger causes run deep – and trace all the way back to the Constitution itself. The founders crafted a government some 225 years ago for a simple agrarian society of less than four million people, 700,000 of whom were slaves.
Government was not expected to do much, and the founders, concerned about the “tyranny of the majority,” purposely designed one that couldn’t do much, dividing authority across the branches and creating veto points that make coherent policy action exceedingly difficult.
Compounding the problem, the founders put Congress at the center of lawmaking, and their design guaranteed that legislators would be electorally tied to their local jurisdictions and highly responsive to special interests. Congress is not wired to solve national problems in the national interest. It is wired to allow parochial legislators to promote their own political welfare through special-interest politics.
Having Congress at the center of lawmaking may have been adequate for a tiny rural society in 1789. But within 100 years, the nation developed explosively into a far-flung industrial society—generating countless problems along the way, from rapacious monopoly to unregulated drugs, that the founders never anticipated and their antiquated government was never designed to handle.
The disjunction only got worse with time, as American society continued to change at a frenzied pace, giving rise to a mind-boggling array of vexing problems that weigh heavily upon the nation today. Terrorism. Pollution. Inequality. Persistent poverty. And much more.
What we need is a government that can meet the challenges of the modern world. But what we have is a government designed for a primitive age nothing like our own. It is a relic of the past.
What we need for effective government
On many issues, Congress has proven utterly incapable of fashioning any kind of policy response. But even when it has been able to act, its typical policies are bizarre concoctions cobbled together to attract disparate legislators with clashing interests into coalitions – not to provide effective solutions to the nation’s problems. Look no further than U.S. tax policy, which is not a policy at all, but a grotesque conglomeration of special-interest favors and loopholes. Or the Affordable Care Act, hobbled by the influence of insurance companies, hospitals, drug firms, and other vested interests.
What can we do? Here is a simple, low-risk approach to constitutional change that promises big payoffs: With Congress the prime source of dysfunction, it should be moved to the periphery of policymaking where its pathologies can do less damage. And presidents should be moved to the center where they can do the most good.