Anti-Gridlock Amendment

Reading through Slate‘s forum on changing the Constitution, I was rather struck by the absence of proposals intending to move toward a system more typical of developed countries. Sure, I wasn’t expecting full-on parliamentarism (the Senate and the presidency are abolished, executive functions are performed by the Speaker of the House, etc.). But I was at least expecting the issue to come up.

There are the uncontroversial measures: moving up inauguration, establishing a formal right to vote, etc. There are the good government measures that are nonetheless pretty small bore, like Supreme Court term limits, electing the attorney general, and depoliticizing election management. There are, of course, the proposals to reverse Citizens United. There are the policy proposals that sounds more like bills than amendments. Mike McConnell’s proposal for changing the procedure for setting Congressional rules, so as to make filibuster reform easier, is the only one that even tries to make it easier to pass legislation, but it would make things more like pre-Bush/Obama America than Western Europe.

Some of this, I’m sure, is due to professional self-selection. If you spend your life studying the Constitution, you probably (unless you’re Sandy Levinson) have a certain affection for the document and its idiosyncrasies, including those that make governing in the presence of a strong party system exceedingly difficult. The fact that the most dramatic proposals along these lines, like Senate abolition or letting the president dissolve Congress and call new elections, require Congress to vote to reduce its own powers probably doesn’t help their chances of inclusion either. But the difficulty of forming a government seems rather obviously like the biggest Constitution-level problem of the moment, and so it’s strange to see it given short-shrift. When passing a budget annually is no longer politically possible, and Congress’ disagreements with the president almost lead to default on a regular basis, something has gone badly awry.

In any case, here’s a relatively modest proposal along these lines, inspired by proposal one from Lloyd Cutler’s “To form a government”, which I think is the likeliest to pass of anything that would seriously help:

Section 1. The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every sixth year by the People of the several States.

Section 2. The President and Vice President shall be elected jointly by the direct vote of the citizens of the United States every sixth year, without regard to whether the citizens are residents of a State.

Section 3. The election of all Members of the House of Representatives and of all Senators shall coincide with the election of the president.

Section 4. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

States could then decide whether the two Senators are to be elected simultaneously in separate races (like when Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand were both up for reelection in 2010), or through single transferable vote or some other multiple-winner method.

There are a few advantages to this approach. House members would be inclined to support it to get longer terms, and Senators wouldn’t lose anything. While synchronizing elections would almost always mean the same party would control both chambers and the presidency, voters would still have the option of choosing divided government, so checks and balances junkies wouldn’t be able to complain. It doesn’t solve the geographical bias of the Senate, and a unicameral parliament would be simpler, but it’d all but eliminate gridlock without threatening the members of Congress who’d have to vote for it.

2 thoughts on “Anti-Gridlock Amendment

  1. This is obviously a good idea. To be honest, I’d always felt that the divided-government problem was completely unsolvable because the Constitution specifies that the one thing you can’t change through amendment is the Senate, which also just so happens to be the worst thing the founders dreamed up. But I have to admit this is a pretty elegant, if imperfect, approach.

    I wonder if it would, over time, reduce the authority of the executive. I suspect you’d see party divisions between Congress and the Presidency more frequently than divisions within Congress–to the extent that split ticket voting existed, that’s how it would happen–and the almost-certainly-unified legislature seems far better-situated to push back against presidential authority than they are today.

    And hey, at the very least, it would force journalists to scuttle the braindead cliche that voters pick divided government because they want to see the government do less, instead of, you know, because elections being staggered over time.

  2. An interesting proposal and one I largely agree with Dylan. I would add a few modifications though that I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on.

    I would have the House elected every three years. This gives them a slightly longer term, so we do not have the obscenely short turnover time we do now, while also creating a midterm election on which to have a true referendum on a President’s policies. It recognizes the reality of a binary system of partisan politics, which the Constitution does not, while maintaining some checks and balances.

    This would be needed since I would also make a second modifier and have the President serve a single six year term. Removing re-election ensures that the President no longer has to fundraise at all while he or she is in office, and is responsible only to securing his or her legacy rather than being too timid or too bold for fear of losing re-election. By removing that fear, we really free the executive to take more vigorous actions and by maintaining a single mid term election during the middle of his or her term, we give voters some check on a mid term evaluation. Having mid terms during the beggining of a first term or the middle of a second term only cripples a President, as we have seen in recent history. Opposition parties have incentives to block Presidential proposals to punish the President at the polls and secure their own party in the White House.

    By making the next Presidential election an open campaign, it ensures the opposition has to be a governing power in order to win the House and in order to take back the White House and Senate.

    By electing the Senate at once, every six years with the new President,we ensure it likely stays in the hands of the party in the White House, giving the President easy appointments and relative freedom in foreign relations, while the House midterm could be a corrective on executive overreach as it was with the Watergate election, 1994, or 2006. It also makes the Senate more immune to fundraising and short term political calculations, and maybe save it for its original purpose as a state based, long term thinking body that would be the proving ground for future Presidents.

    I am also of mind to possibly remove Presidential term limits entirely or limit to two six year terms. But the status quo is definitely deficient, and I would favor your approach over the present.

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