Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Q&A with William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe

William G. Howell
William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe are the authors of the new book Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency. Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago, and Moe is the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Q: You describe Congress as "an irresponsible, ineffective policymaker...due to its constitutional design," and to the Constitution as "a relic of the past." What are some of the reasons you think Congress's design has become problematic, and at what point do you think the Constitution became "a relic"?

A: …Often, Congress is unable to take any action at all in addressing key social problems—immigration, for instance—because special interests, aided by the Constitution’s separation of powers, can find ways of blocking. 

Terry M. Moe
But when Congress does act, it tends to produce weak, cobbled-together policies that are designed to attract political support from disparate legislators, not to provide coherent, intellectually justifiable solutions to the nation’s problems. 

This sort of thing may have been okay in 1789 for a small agrarian nation in which government wasn’t expected to do much, and didn’t do much. 

But 21st century America is an exceedingly modern, postindustrial, highly interconnected, fast-changing country that is awash in serious social problems—from terrorism to globalization to pollution to drugs to poverty—that government, nearly all agree, is fully expected to address. 

The founders had no idea that any of this would happen, and so the government they designed was never intended to tackle the problems of modern times.  

To be sure, the Constitution did not become a relic overnight. And in many ways, the Constitution has served our country well.

But as our population grew, as our economy became more vibrant and sophisticated, as our stature in the world escalated, a chasm opened up between what our political institutions were designed to do and what nearly all citizens called upon them to do. 

We can’t put an exact date on when the Constitution became a relic. But it is reasonable to say that, by 1900 or so—when the nation was fast becoming an industrial, urbanized nation—the Constitution was way out of sync with American society, and governance problems were already quite severe.  Since then, the chasm has only widened and deepened, and the governance problems have gotten worse.   

Q: You propose making presidents "more central" to the political process and Congress "less central." Why do you think that will improve the process?

A: …First, [presidents] are truly national leaders with national constituencies driven to solve national prob­lems, and they are far less likely than legislators to become captive to narrow or local special-interest pressures. Their policy agendas won’t please everyone. And they aren’t perfect.  But compared to members of Congress, they are paragons of na­tional leadership. 

Second, presidents have reached the pinnacle of their professional lives, and they are invariably motivated by their legacies—which turn on their success in crafting durable, effective policy solutions to important national problems….

[But] the Constitution places heavy constraints on presidential power—and thus makes it virtually impossible for the system to take advantage of what presidents have to offer as the champions of effective government.

Major strides can be achieved, however, without a radical transformation of the Constitution and a risky leap into the unknown. Under the reform we’re proposing, the Constitution remains basically the same. So does Congress. So does separation of powers.

The reform involves a simple, low-risk constitutional amendment that changes the way policy decisions get made—by moving presidents to the center of the policy process, and moving Congress to the periphery where its pathologies can do less damage. 

Specifically, we propose a constitutional amendment that grants presidents universal “fast track” authority. The nation has 40 years of positive experience with fast track in international trade, and that same familiar model would simply be applied to all legislation.

Presidents would craft policy proposals—which are likely to be far more coherent, well integrated, and effective than anything Congress would design—and Congress would be required to vote up or down on those proposals, within a specified period of time and on a majoritarian basis.  Congress would retain the authority to pass laws on its own, but presidents would retain the authority to veto them.

Q: You write, "Presidents are the champions of coherence and effectiveness in a fragmented, parochial political world." Looking at the two major party nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, what would conceivably happen under a President Clinton or a President Trump were your proposal somehow to come into effect?

A: Whether Clinton or Trump wins the presidency surely matters.  Among other things, these two people would pursue extraordinarily different policy agendas. 

But fast track authority does not even remotely guarantee that the winner would get exactly what she or he wants. Both houses of Congress would still need to vote yes before any proposal becomes law, and the court system and separation of powers would remain intact as checks on presidential power, as would the Bill of Rights. 

A President Clinton or President Trump would still be highly constrained, with strong incentives to compromise, and with no additional powers of unilateral action.

The difference with fast track, then, is not that the new president would suddenly become a dictator. The difference is that, when policies do pass, they stand to be much better designed and more effective than the weak, cobbled-together mish-mashes that Congress long been cranking out.

This may be little consolation to partisans on both sides. Clinton’s supporters may say that they hate Trump’s policies, and thus are opposed to anything that promotes effectiveness for a Trump presidency. Trump’s supporters may say the same about Clinton and her policies.  

Put the two together and it points to a governmental system that is always ineffective—because it must be in order to keep the “bad guys” from ever doing anything.   

But this is a narrow, short-sighted brand of thinking. The fact is, effective government is essential if democracy is to have any meaning.  Otherwise, Americans are voting for politicians who endorse policies as solutions to major problems, run on those policies, get into office—and can’t actually do anything.  

Either the policies don’t pass or, if they do, they are eviscerated and weakened to the point that they have no impact. This is not democratic government. The people are voting, but they are not getting what they want. They are not getting anything at all. The glue that makes democracy real is effective government—for it connects the policies that people vote on to the outcomes they actually get.

The proper way to judge fast track, or indeed any constitutional amendment, is not to think about Clinton and Trump. It is to think about the kinds of democratic institutions we want for this nation—that would really work for this nation—tomorrow, 10 years from now, a half century from now, whoever the candidates may be and whatever their policies are. 

Effective government is fundamental to democracy. We can’t be short-sighted if we want our democracy to function well. We need to think about the long term.    

Q: Under your plan, what role would checks and balances continue to play, and how likely do you think it is that your plan would be approved?

Our proposal barely affects the checks and balances that characterize American politics. All of the legislative, judicial, and electoral constraints on presidential power remain intact, as do the constitutional limits on government expressed in the Bill of Rights. 

By placing presidents at the center of the legislative process, our proposal merely ensures that they will play pivotal roles in seeing to it that policies are designed to be effective solutions to the nation’s problems.  

To succeed in getting their policies adopted, however, they will need to rally the support of majorities within both chambers of Congress. And if their policies are to endure over time, they will need to pass muster with the courts and American people. 

Giving the presidency permanent and universal fast track authority requires a constitutional amendment. This, no doubt, is a heavy lift. But our proposal expands upon an existing power, one with which the nation has a good deal of very positive experience. It also comes at a time when public approval of Congress is at historic lows. 

And most importantly, the incapacity of our government to solve very real problems is currently generating all kinds of political unrest.  The time is right, we think, for serious conversation about institutional reform. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We are both pushing forward on our respective research agendas.  William is writing a series of academic papers on Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and the sources of political authority. Terry is advancing his longstanding research agenda on public sector unions, as well as working on a book on power. 

But together, we’re already beginning to think about a follow-up to Relic. The Constitution’s hold on our political imaginations and ambitions, we think, is worthy of continued investigation. Stay tuned.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As it turns out, yes.  In this election year, what passes for political discourse can’t seem to see past Trump’s Twitter feed. Come November, however, the nation will elect a new president, and our attention—at long last—will return to the actual challenges of governance. 

We would do well to think critically about the capacity of our elected officials, whoever they may be, to actually solve problems. For unless we do so, the kind of anxiety and disaffection that has so dominated this election cycle will only intensify.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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