Let’s Face it: Our Founding Fathers made one Serious Goof
It is generally accepted that the federal government is not working. Some suggest the answer to this failure is less government. Others argue that giving the government more power and influence is the best way to fix failed government. The reality is in between. What is needed is not more or less government but more effective government.
The fracas between the more and less government groups is not new. It has been entwined in the political life of this country since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and continues today. In fact, much of the debate during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 revolved around the proper size and function of the federal government. The framers of the Constitution were the children of colonial rule, so it is no surprise that they had distrust of a strong central, distant government. And yet, they were prescient enough to recognize the need for a central government. The result was a compromise and compromise is always open to debate, interpretation and potential conflict. (One compromise in the Constitution led eventually to the Civil War.)
With the members of the Constitutional Convention fearful of a strong central government, the seed for the ongoing debate over more or less government was planted in the Constitution by, on the one hand, creating a central government, and at the same time seeking to limit its effectiveness
As brilliant and foresighted as the framers of the Constitution were, there is no way they could anticipate or be expected to envision the changes that have taken place in this country over the ensuing 225 years.
The structure put in place for the federal government was (and remains) brilliant. The concept of separation of powers among three different branches and the implements of checks and balances achieved the objectives of the framers, while precluding the risks of a single-headed central government.
The Search for Acceptable Solutions
The fundamentals of the Constitution should be inviolate to tampering. In fact, they should be reaffirmed and strengthened. The problem is that the times we live in today have diluted the original beauty and intent of the Constitution. Changes are needed; not to move away from what the framers, men like Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin and the others intended, but to move closer to their objective.
It has been long recognized, but modern times have fully exposed the most fundamental flaw in the Constitution and that is the structure of Congress. It was never intended that Congress set policy or govern the country, and this body is ill- structured to do so. Those responsibilities were reserved for the President. The original intent was for Congress to check the power of the President by approving or rejecting his policy initiatives. In fact, during the early years of the Republic, proposed legislation emanated from the President, not in Congress.
This is much like the modern relationship between a corporate CEO and the board of directors. It is the responsibility of the CEO to make and implement policy. It is the duty of the board of directors to review and approve or reject the plans of management. When the board ventures beyond its proper purview and sets policy or attempts to manage the company, then conflict, confusion and deadlock often emerge.
The intent of the Constitution has been abrogated because Congress has increasingly encroached on the duties of the Executive Branch by attempting to set policy. This has led to stalemate, conflict and ineffective government. The fundamental weakness in allowing Congress to set policy is the fact that the Constitution did not structure Congress in a way that makes it accountable to all Americans. The President is elected by all Americans, while members of Congress are only accountable to their narrow and specific constituency.
Woodrow Wilson, 30 years before he became President, alluded to this fundamental flaw of congressional government declaring that it is impossible to fix responsibility (or blame, if you will) for decisions emanating from a body composed of hundreds of politicians. Wilson wrote that in a congressional government, “Nobody stands sponsor to the policy of the government. A dozen men originate it; a dozen compromises twist and alter it; a dozen officers whose names are scarcely known outside Washington put it into execution.” (The Imperial Congress, American Heritage, Fall, 2010)
The Oversight of Constitution Framers
The imperfection in the Constitutional structure of Congress is that there are no controls to prevent Congress from attempting to change its intended role. This has always been a problem, but it has been exacerbated by the times in which we live. Though ill-equipped to set policy, let alone implement it, Congress continually attempts to expand its boundaries and meddle in the management of the country. This problem is compounded by the modern age of media, money and special interests groups. The heat of this sophisticated pressure (something not contemplated at the time the Constitution was drafted) causes the 535 members of Congress (100 Senators and 435 Representatives) – each with different agendas – seeking to set policy and manage the country. And all the while, they wilt and kneel at the altar of the special interests and their gushing fountains of money—all in an effort to get re-elected and all at the potential expense of the entire country. This results in the consternation, confusion and ineffective government that we suffer from now.
Why it’s Called “Obamacare”
The most recent example of this situation is the health care reform bill. What should have been a simple solution to an obvious problem emerged as a 20-lb., 2,000 page hodge-podge of conflicting and confusing elements of “reform.” Much of the blame for this result falls on the 535 members of Congress who were more concerned with their own agendas and in taking something back to their money and special interest groups, rather than solving the problem. But the President also deserves a healthy share of the blame for this monstrosity. President Obama’s mistake was in attempting to sell his plan to Congress, rather than the people. He compounded this error by allowing Congress – with all their individual egos, needs and special interests – to design the legislation. He abdicated his proper Constitutional role as leader.
As Franklin Roosevelt said a week after his election, “The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That is the least of it . . . It is preeminently a place of moral leadership. Without leadership alert and sensitive to change, we are all bogged up or lose our way.”
Clearly we are all bogged up and losing our way. If so, what can we do about it?
As mentioned before, the fundamental structure of our governmental system is one of the best ever devised by man. We should not move to a legislative system that would only bring more conflict in the media driven, special interest and corrupting money environment we live in today. Likewise, we should not move to a despotic – even if benevolent – system of an all-powerful executive. However, there are some changes that could be made to bring the system into the modern era, while maintaining – if not actually strengthening – the original intent of our Constitution.
These changes would include:
- Term limits for all members of Congress.
- Effective line-item veto power for the President.
- A constitutional limit on the amount of public debt.
By refusing a third term as President, George Washington set the precedent for term limits of the President. This limit was codified by the 22nd amendment to the Constitution (but only after, or perhaps because of Franklin Roosevelt’s record-setting four elected terms). We should do the same with members of Congress by limiting senators to two, 6-year terms and congressmen (and congresswomen) to two, three-year terms.
This change would work to insulate members of Congress from the corrupting influences of special interests, the constant need to raise money for re-election and at least give them the freedom to do some good. Limiting the terms of senators and congressional office holders means that the job becomes an opportunity to do what is right for the country, rather than making a career in Congress. If they do not have to worry about re-election, they will have time to worry about improving the lives of Americans.
Part of the corrupting influence in government today is what we call “pork-barrel” legislation. This happens when a member of Congress, in response to special interests and with an eye on re-election, secretly inserts wild and often wasteful spending amendments into legislation. (a bridge to nowhere?; a $107,000 grant to study the sex life of the Japanese quail?) This activity fuels corruption and compounds our debt and deficit issues. The president should be given the power to line-item veto these boondoggles out of legislation. If Congress wants to override the veto, so be it, at least members of Congress will have to go on record as favoring this spending.
There is much hand-wringing and gnashing of gums over budget deficits and the national debt. The reality is that it is not practical to require that all federal budgets be balanced each and every year. Also, debt in and of itself is not bad. What is bad is debt caused by spending on frivolous items (pork barrel) and incurring debt that cannot be managed. Debt assumed that will offer a return, i.e. to buy a home, build a school or improve national infrastructure, can be effective ways to improve life and move forward. However, if we take on too much debt to buy a home or if the government spends too much on give-aways, then the debt can become unmanageable and ultimately destructive. (In the early days of our country there were fierce debates as to whether the government had the power to take on any debt at all.)
The way to control debt and keep it manageable is by making a constitutional change that limits the amount of national debt – plus the interest on the debt – to an agreed upon percentage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. For example:
Except in times of war or clear national emergency, it shall be unconstitutional to incur national debt that exceeds 50 percent of GDP
Currently, the national debt is almost 90 percent of GDP and growing. This does not mean we should take the impractical – and incorrect – approach that there should be no national debt, but a debt limit tied to the GDP would require that the debt not be open-ended but instead, legislatively anchored to the country’s ability to manage it.
Our Future is at Stake. Really.
We are about to participate in another national election. The debate is fierce and emotional. Special interest groups are spending billions of dollars to implement changes they deem essential to the future of our country. Unfortunately, it is all a waste. No matter whether the “less-government” or the “more-government” groups win – nothing with change. We will still be stuck with a wonderful system that has been corrupted by modern times. It is a system that will continue to create nothing but conflict, confusion and stalemate.
And the Moral of the Story …
If something is broken and not doing what it is intended to do, don’t just complain about it or accept bad results – fix it! The result of doing nothing is to allow politicians seeking the Holy Grail of re-election to be more often influenced by special interest and monied groups than the best interests of the nation — and that is a recipe for bad government. The framers of the Constitution would not have allowed this, and neither should we.