Friday, January 9, 2009

Sundquist’s Proposals for Constitutional Reform

The Four-Eight-Four plan endorsed by the Committee on the Constitutional System seems commonsensical. The two year House Term is a joke. Electoral pressure on Congress’s members has seriously undermined the deliberative purpose of Congress. Developments over the past few decades have resulted in a common formula for reelection which while good for Congress members is not good for the legislative process in general. According to Fiorina the trick is to spend as much time as possible in constituent service and pork barrel spending and to avoid entangling oneself in true programmatic reform with its inherent electoral risks. Sundquist explains that the popular trend in the House is to try and squeeze all important legislation into the first six months of the term, because after this initial period Congress members are too busy with – and too sensitive to – their home districts to engage in the time-consuming deliberation, or the risky maneuvering which is necessary to effectuate real legislative change. Six months of lawmaking is simply not enough time to enact effective reform of US institutions. Furthermore, Congress does not have the testicular fortitude to do take on special interests or tackle divisive issues because “an election is never more than two years away” (p. 159). Constant electioneering has severely damaged the institutional effectiveness of Congress.

Sundquist presents the Four-Eight-Four plan as a possible alternative to the current system. The plan is to extend the terms of House members’ to four years, Senators’ to eight and keep the president’s term at four years. The hope is that by giving our Congressional representatives a longer term in office, the electoral pressure which is currently crippling the effectiveness of the US Congress will be somewhat alleviated. Thus, the four-eight-four plan aims at a representative ideal of trusteeship in which representatives to Congress are willing to occasionally ignore their constituents so they can make legislation which addresses the difficult problems facing the country.

For evidence that representatives with longer term limits are better able to legislate we need look no further than a comparison between the US House and her sister the US Senate. In the House constituent service and visits to the home district are the essential components of a representative’s time in office. During the candidate’s term, running the country takes a backseat to baseball games, photo-ops and special interest pandering all in the name of reelection. On the other hand, Senators while forced to neglect their DC responsibilities during the last couple years of their term in order to actively pursue reelection, still have three or four years with which they can deliberate and make strategic concessions on legislation. With reelection four, five or even six years away Senators can afford to make concessions and even unpopular decisions, because they have plenty of time to justify their decision to their district and make up for it in the form of constituent service and pork barrel spending. Even if Senators do not behave like trustees under this plan, they can at the very least act like statesmen and spend their extra time analyzing the details of policies so that vague and poorly worded legislation are not as common.

The four-eight-four plan makes House members behave much more effectively. Senators, with eight year terms, would act much as they currently do except with such long terms there would be a greater incentive for considerations of the serious long-term effects of legislation, making Senators even better stewards of the national interest.

The four-eight-four plan also cuts down on the number of elections. I think this healthy for democracy in America. Sundquist gives a good counter-argument in favor of the midterm election as a check against the excesses of a bad Presidency. However, midterm elections are not particularly important to US democracy. For instance, participation in midterm elections is fairly dismal. If the midterm election were to be eliminated then the import of the remaining elections would sky-rocket – fully half of all Senators would be elected during each election along with the president and the entirety of the House. Each election would incur huge voter turnout. In turn, high voter turnout would ensure that when the US does go to the polls the decisions made will be much better: 1. High turnout ensures a better cross-section of the population so that representatives have an incentive to be truly representative of the general populous – and less tied to their particular special interests. 2. High profile elections with lots of popular involvement are an opportunity for the populous to be educated, and the more informed the populous the better the representation which they select. Therefore, the impacts of removing the midterm check against Congress would be mitigated because representatives will be of a higher quality to begin with and won’t need constant supervision. Furthermore with the president, the entirety of the House and half of the Senate being elected together it is possible for a change in the popular will to manifest itself in dramatic shifts in party control. Likewise, without the midterm election looming over their heads, dominant coalitions can work effectively together to effectuate important reforms and take-on tough challenges that are otherwise either tabled, or else hastily patched over with ineffective legislation. Insulation from popular politics is more important than popular reprisals through midterm elections.

The six-six-three plan aims at much the same thing as the four-eight-four plan, but does so less effectively. Three years may not be enough time to effectively insulate House members from the incessant demands of constituent service. On the other hand, giving the president a non-renewable six year term goes too far in the opposite direction by completely removing her from any and all electoral pressure. According to Sundquist this may also make presidents less effective because they lose political capitol. Currently the guarantee that a President – along with her supporters – will be up for reelection in four years encourages her supporters in Congress to work with the president on effectively running the country. This extra support for the president would be seriously undermined with the six-six-three plan.

Sundquist offers special election votes of no confidence as possible way of removing unpopular and ineffective governments. I agree with the spirit of this proposal, but ultimately the complications of determining who gets to call the recall election are too great. If the president gets to decide then he’ll call a reelection every time she perceives that it’ll giver her party an advantage in the number of seats in the US Congress. If Congress gets to decide then recall elections will only be called when we have divided government and an unpopular president. If the party in control of the presidency is also in control of Congress than now matter how badly DC is malfunctioning a recall will never be called. Therefore the intent of special elections would be only rarely realized. Instead special elections would incur great costs on our system. Special recall elections would completely undermine the limited level of trusteeship we currently have in Congress. If representatives can be subjected to a recall election at any moment, than they’re never going to want to be working in Washington. Senators will begin acting like House members and will be forced to spend every minute possible of their six-year term in their home district. House members would become even more panicky. DC would become much less effective as representatives scramble about trying to shore-up against possible recall elections. Electing effective representatives the first time around is a better methodology then consistently electing a crappy one every year or so.

A final proposal which Sundquist advocates is fostering interbranch collaboration between Congress and the Executive. To this end Sundquist proposes an amendment to the constitution revoking the section one clause which states “no person holding any office under the United States shall be a member of either House during his continuance in office.” By removing this clause Congress members would be free to hold concurrent positions in both the executive and the legislative. Currently, law-making is often sloppy and vague. Placing legislators in the executive discourages sloppy statesmanship, because Congress members will themselves face the difficulties of translating vague mandates into enforceable law. Besides the benefit of this experience, Congress members would also be in a position to better understand the practical functionality of the executive. This information could aid Congress in drafting laws aimed at improving executive functionality – which is currently quite inefficacious. Furthermore, experienced Congress members inside the executive would be able to assist Federal Agencies translate new legislation and ensure compliance. This may be the most important benefit incurred by such a program. Having Congress members with important positions inside the executive would drastically increase Congressional oversight of executive functions. Oversight ensures that burgeoning bureaucracies do not skew away from the intent of the legislature – which in the US is meant to be sovereign.

I do not foresee the executive being able to use or abuse the legislature through such postings. Congressional office holds much greater esteem and power than even high level executive jobs – “bureaucrats” are not particularly well respected in the eyes of the American people. Not only do Congress members enjoy all the glory, but with all the modern benefits of incumbency, they typically enjoy better job security as well. Thus, there is little chance of Congress members being manipulated or abused with any enticements for executive office.

Interbranch collaboration fostered through the permission of representatives into executive posts would foster better legislation, oversight and efficiency while incurring few costs. Empowering Congress members to serve in the executive is a great idea.

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