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.