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America too tied down to act

As the president is inaugurated, the 113th Congress begins and the country confronts myriad problems, it’s worth examining the weakness of our political system. Weakness is not a word often associated with America. After all, we are the world’s strongest democracy. 

Yet, in a fast-changing, interconnected world where agility, flexibility and planfulness are honored, our government operates under more constraints, with greater haphazardness than perhaps any other advanced democracy in the world. Like Gulliver, we are a giant unable to act because we are tied down in so many places. Debates over debt limits and budgets, taxes and sequestration illustrate the problem but are far from a complete catalog.

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Many of these difficulties arise from a common foundation — a bias against action hardwired into the Constitution. Out of a need to compromise and a suspicion of government, our founders created a system in which getting things done was hard. 

Action requires complete agreement among majorities of the House and the Senate along with the acquiescence of the president and the courts. Senate rulemakers erected yet another high hurdle by creating a situation where 60, not 51, votes can be required to pass legislation. States, too, can toss monkey wrenches into the gears, grinding things to a halt. As my former teachers, professors Juan Linz and Al Stepan, have argued, no other major democracy in the world has so many points at which action can be stopped. 

Most advanced democracies endow but a single political institution endowed with real power: They are unicameral, parliamentary systems (combining legislative and executive functions) where sub-units (like states) cannot interfere and courts have limited discretion. Some democracies like Japan add a second legislative chamber with veto power, while others, like Canada, are unicameral but invest regions (Canada’s provinces) with some power to block federal legislation. Only Switzerland and Australia go even one step beyond those nations, while the U.S. sits alone with the largest number of veto points of any major democracy in the world.

Non-democracies have even fewer politically powerful actors. Colleagues told me of a wealthy dictatorship that had developed a 100-year economic plan. We can barely plan for next week!

As the point about dictatorships makes clear, efficiency is not the only important criterion. However, our system is far less flexible, far less agile, far less able to make either quick or long-lasting or even painful decisions than many others.

That’s why most major shifts in domestic policy came about when one party or the other had almost absolute control of the levers of power. The key elements of the New Deal were passed under a Democratic president who had 69 of 96 seats in the Senate and 322 seats in the House. And, over the course of his presidency, FDR appointed every one of the Supreme Court justices. When Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare, he had 68 Democratic senators and 295 House Democrats.   

None of this is to suggest that we need to become a parliamentary government or to jettison the Senate. It is to suggest that our unique system, which distributes power so widely, requires high levels of comity and compromise to be successful. 

We used to display that trait. Our Constitution itself has been called “a bundle of compromises.” 

More recently, Ronald Reagan exhibited a commitment to compromise in passing tax reform, which pleased Democrats by closing some loopholes for the wealthy at the cost of cutting the top rate nearly in half. Republicans embraced the lower rates, but were forced to accept the elimination of deductions, which meant the wealthy would pay a higher percentage of income tax revenues than in the past. 

We don’t see much of this anymore — and that should be a worry. If the spirit of compromise fades, the greatness of our system could well fade with it.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.