The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Fiscal Cliffs Notes


December 31, 2012

FiscalCliffsNotesJudging by the rumors coming out of the media, it appears that we have a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. This is troubling on a number of levels. First, the deal will be agreed to by the outgoing Congress–what we at the Duck are ashamed to call the lame-duck session–instead of the Congress just elected, the one that includes Elizabeth Warren instead of Scott Brown and Claire McCaskill instead of Todd Akin. Second, and related, on its merits this appears to be a deal that serious fiscal hawks and progressives alike will be deeply dissatisfied with–one that locks in Bush tax cuts for nearly all Americans, despite the U.S. government’s pressing need for revenue, while failing to make any substantial headway on America’s long-term fiscal problems. Most important, of course, this deal is simply not one that most Americans want; it is, instead, a deal acceptable to the House Republican caucus (or, rather, one presumptively acceptable to that caucus, which has a notable tendency to shoot itself in the foot).

The outcome of the negotiations, and the very fact that there were negotiations to begin with, suggest that it’s time for restructuring the American government.

Over the past decade, it has become evident that legislation requires a supermajority to pass in the Senate and also that relatively small numbers of legislators in the Senate and in the House can block legislation. The situation in the House is bad enough, but is distantly justifiable on normative grounds. But the situation in the Senate, in which 20.5 states’ senators — in theory, representing as few as 32.5 million Americans, out of the 313 million Americans with representation in the Senate — can block legislation, comes close to a tyranny of the minority. To put it another way: the votes necessary to block legislation in the Senate can come from states whose total population is substantially less than that of California alone, and not much greater than Texas or of New York and Florida combined.

In this situation, it is unsurprising that some are calling on the American people to give up on the Constitution. The specific remedy suggested in that op-ed, of course, is hardly worth discussing–throwing out all the Constitution’s rules without a replacement is more or less tantamount to establishing a perfect dictatorship. But Constitutional reform is, likely, essential.

For some reason, the American people have come to accept a political system in which showdowns and recurrent compromises and patchwork policymaking is the order of the day. I happen to blame the simplistic and badly misleading content of American civics courses and the popular understanding of the Constitution, in which “checks and balances” are allegedly essential to the proper functioning of good government. But even if we grant that assertion (which I would not) there is no reason to believe that the current American system, with a surfeit of checks and a distinct lack of balance, is in any way optimal. Having elected a president with a reasonably coherent platform, the American people are about to receive a policy compromise that perhaps not a single American voter would have chosen if left to his or her own devices.

There is no particularly good way to fix the current constitutional machinery. The best outcome would be to keep the bits of the Constitution that Americans tend to like–the preamble, the Bill of Rights, the Fourteenth and the Nineteenth Amendments, and so on–and to replace the rest of the document wholesale. In particular, the United States would be better served by replacing its presidential system with a parliamentary system. It need not be a Westminster system (would we keep a bicameral system if we thought hard about it?) and it might even keep features like a formally independent judiciary that are arguably useful. We could even keep a German-style figurehead president, since the title “President of the United States” has become familiar with long usage, and let that “chief executive” live in the White House while the prime minister lives in a modest townhouse somewhere on Capitol Hill.

There would be numerous ancillary benefits to this plan–elections would be shorter, accountability would be greater, and Democrats would no longer feel a silly obligation to give away the biggest Cabinet posts to Republicans–but the greatest one would be to finally create a federal government that works.

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