HOW AMERICA’S PUBLIC GOVERNANCE SYSTEM IS FAILING THE PEOPLE AND HOW IT CAN BE SALVAGED
America is, at this stage of the twenty-first century, without any doubt the wealthiest and most endowed nation on earth. It is blessed by its compact geographical position between two large oceans, bordering on the landside with friendly democratically ruled neighbors. It is blessed by unmatched wealth, in asset value per capita, income per capita and in natural resources. It has a huge and safe fresh water supply. It has a manageable size population of immigrant heritage and better age distribution than Europe, China, Japan or Russia. It has a vibrant economy—still the largest in the world—and a powerful military. In other words, America is unequaled in its capacity to be the shining star in the line-up of nations and in the global environment.
So, why is it that its public sector is badly underperforming, with the result that—measured by many yardsticks of competitiveness—America is not offering its people world class living conditions? And why is it that our government appears to be paralyzed, unable to deal with its biggest challenges like growing inequality, the national debt, the sustainability of its entitlement programs, tax reform, tort reform and the reform of our educational and healthcare systems?
The tendency among the American people—spurred by highly polarized main stream media—is to blame either the current occupant of the White House or “the other party” for the lack of achievement by the public sector. But I have learned in business that if an organization is not delivering against expectations the cause for the failure is normally not found in individuals but in dysfunction, design flaws, of the organization at large. This premise is supported, in the case of public governance in America, by the fact that the identity of holders of public office has constantly changed over the last decades, also between parties, without appreciably changing the effectiveness of the public sector. Blaming the sitting President or Congress is a cop-out for our unwillingness to face the fact that the much touted ‘American system of Governance’ may have morphed from its venerable origins in the framework of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into something that may look good on paper but is incapable of delivering results for the American People.
This essay speaks of the need to re-examine our venerable public governance system. The masterpiece has collected dust. Our brilliantly designed system of governance has developed, over time, fatal flaws that prevent the federal government from meeting the needs of the nation and the expectations of the American people. If America wants to return to peak performance and continue to provide leadership in a globalized environment it will have to find a way to re-engage the People in the governance of their interests. It will have to wrest control of the political process away from the moneymen and the special interest groups and hand it back to where it belongs, in the hands of the People. This is not likely to happen unless we find a way to eliminate the following flaws that have crept into the system:
1. The undue influence of campaign donors and interest groups
2. The two party system
3. The election system, including the frequency of elections, terms of tenure, primary elections and the districting process
4. The proliferation of the regulatory framework and with it the bureaucracy required for implementation
5. The absence of a constitutional requirement for a national strategy
The political system
If you look at this list of shortcomings that have crept up under the American system in place today, you have to come to the conclusion that there is something significantly wrong with the political part of the system.
No one can, in good conscience, argue that a nation as rich and gifted as the United States, the largest and best functioning economy in the world and the nation that has won world wars, a Cold War and is leading the world in space exploration, might be under-resourced to solve the problems it is encountering. Maybe it cannot solve them all simultaneously, but it sure can address and solve them sequentially after first picking the low hanging fruit and then prioritizing the remaining challenges. All it will take is presidential leadership and congressional determination to get the job done. It is a political task to come up with a smart allocation of resources to the high priority challenges. But that seems to be the missing ingredient in the American system today; and, it explains why America appears powerless to solve its most apparent hurdles to future success.
I believe that America, as a nation, has become too complacent. It has come out of the Cold War as the undisputed world leader, the only real Super Power in economic and military terms. But it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. The job is never done. Rapid change is not reserved for the business environment, it rears its ugly head also in the geo-political realm and the status quo is constantly threatened. Will Rodgers saw this clearly when he so eloquently pointed out, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
The nation is at serious risk of losing its dominance and vibrancy if the political constellation does not change. It has to find a way to break the logjam of inaction and deadlock in Congress and between Congress and the administration. The Constitution created a balance of power, but it was never intended to cause powerlessness because countervailing powers cancel each other out.The Constitution presumes that, after a debate and weighing of alternatives, the legislative and executive branches of government find each other in measures and policies that advance the strength and the growth of the nation. That presumption is getting denied by the current dysfunction in the Beltway.
Nothing wrong with the fundamentals
As a first generation immigrant from the Netherlands, I chose for America and I will still say that I did so for all the right reasons. I fit right in with the American spirit in the sense that I am an incurable optimist when it comes to America’s natural capacity to step back from the brink and find another, safer, way ahead. It is quintessentially American to believe that, when it comes down to brass tacks, America will do what it has to do to avoid hitting the slippery slope. I, too, refuse to believe that a country, built on such strong democratic principles, and blessed with unparalleled wealth and untapped resources, will not find a way to rid itself from the shackles that hold it back from seriously addressing the challenges that it faces in the global competition. America is not facing a challenge it cannot meet. In spite of what the OECD Better Life Index, which ranks the United States 7th among all nation, suggests, there is not a country in the world that is better positioned to be (and remain) a dominant force in the world than the United States of America. China has a much larger population, but that is a mixed blessing, particularly with the current demographics where the graying population vastly outnumbers the young. China will pay a hefty price for hanging on for too long to its misguided “one child” policy. This policy has kept the population growth under control and helped the great leap forward in terms of per capita income, but it has been kept in force for too long and drawn a big check on the future of the country. China will also pay a hefty price in the form of corrective action it will soon have to take to deal with its environmental challenges. And, in spite of all the progress the Chinese economy has made over the last couple of decades, it will have to deal with the friction resulting from a much larger degree of inequality than we experience in America. The only “advantage” China has over the United States is that its political system will allow it to take and enforce top driven decisions to throw money at solving these problems without being constrained by a balance of power and the paralyzing effect of discord between political parties and branches of government. I place the word “advantage” in quotation marks, because I believe that this advantage will turn out to be a disadvantage in the long run. The economic liberalization of China has far outpaced the political liberalization and to correct that may turn out to be the biggest challenge that China will be facing, a challenge that is unique to that country. The process to meet that challenge is likely to bring with it periods of instability and economic and political uncertainty.
On the surface, then, there is plenty of justification for optimism. Optimism, though, does not solve any problems and has the nasty habit of morphing into naivety and complacency. I will say that America resembles in many ways its prototypical citizen, who continues to drive his Cadillac or pick-up truck everywhere, even if he could easily walk or bike; who continues to stop for lunch at McDonald’s and supersizes his meal even though he knows he shouldn't; who talks about losing weight and going to the gym, but puts it off until tomorrow, next week or next year; and who, as a result, keeps gaining weight slowly and steadily, one pound at a time, but decides that he still has time to deal with it later and reverse course. Political America is indulgent and undisciplined, probably because it believes that, in the absence of clear and present danger, it still has time to make the hard choices later. Popular voices in the media like Paul Krugman in the New York Times lend, by endless repetition, credibility to this dangerously flawed attitude. Who does not want to believe that everything will come out fine in the end? I am a firm believer in the dogma that not much good happens without careful planning and timely action, even if that action will be painful, politically and monetarily.
The flaws are in the system and the process
If a building is structurally flawed and unsafe, it gets condemned. America needs a similar solution for its current political system, because it is deeply flawed, and unfit for the purposes it is supposed to serve. The biggest structural flaws that I see are (in no particular order):
· The two party system
· The money influence
· The election system
· The proliferation of the regulatory system
· The absence of a national strategy
I see these flaws as interconnected and believe that they each need to be addressed simultaneously, if we want our political house to be re-designed to absorb the shockwaves that our nation is enduring now and will have to endure in an uncertain future. Having said that, I realize the enormity of the challenge to get anything of this nature implemented. It is no sinecure to turn a battleship around! But I see the existing structure falling apart; and I see the current political constellation in America as unsuited for future use. It ought to be condemned. There is some serious creative destruction to be done. Let’s look at each of the flaws separately.
The two party system
The polarization between the two parties in our current political system has come to the point that it is rendering the whole system dysfunctional. It has become political suicide for a Republican member of Congress to support a Democratic initiative and for a Democratic member of Congress to underwrite a Republican legislative proposal. The Republican Party will not allow the Democratic Party to be seen solving the nation’s pressing issues and vice versa. The end-result is that nothing of importance gets done in Congress or, if something gets done, like the “2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” better known as Obamacare, it is ill considered and ideologically biased. The jealousy and hatred between Republicans and Democrats is such that neither one can stand the thought that their nemesis might have contributed to, if not crafted, a solution to a public problem. This explains why Congress has not taken the first step towards solving the most prominent and evident challenges our nation faces:
· Deficit elimination and debt control
· Entitlement reform
· Tax reform
· Tort reform
· Immigration reform
· Energy policy
· Global warming
· Cyber space security
· Infrastructure renewal
· Education reform
· Health Care reform and wellness policy (obesity and drugs)
The obvious solution to the problem is the creation of a centrist third party, that is less ideological, and more pragmatic, and that can govern by forming a coalition either with the right or the left, depending on the outcome of Congressional elections. A centrist party that could attract moderate Democrats and Republicans who want to be freed from the shackles of the ideological extremes within their parties as well as a large proportion of declared independents. Such centrist party would, if not by itself, in a coalition with either the Democrats or the Republicans, produce a large enough majority in Congress to break through the existing stalemate and get our top level issues addressed.
The money influence
Money, not competency, is now the critical success factor for any national elected office and for most of the high profile state and municipal elected offices. In 1950, senators could get elected by spending 100,000 dollars on their campaigns; by 1980, that number was typically several million dollars; by 2010, many senate candidates spent 20-30 million dollars to win or retain their seats. It should not surprise anybody that, in just about the same timeframe, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has risen from below 100 to almost 14,000. These 14,000 lobbyists spend more than $3.5 billion annually. Combined with the freedom of speech, which allows any interest group or political action committee (PAC) to craft any commercial, pro or con a candidate for office, without regard to truth or material content, money has taken control of the political process in the USA, starting with the election process.
Only in America! Nowhere else in the democratic realm of nations has money taken such a commanding control of the political process and its outcomes.
The only saving grace—if you can call it that—is that there are so many rich purses fighting for control that there are off sets and countervailing balances. Be it what may, the result is that hands are tied, our elected representatives are beholden, not to their constituents, but to their campaign contributors and nothing of importance gets done. Nicholas Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago wrote in the 2013 Columbia Law Review: “There is near consensus in the empirical literature that politicians’ positions more accurately reflect the views of their donors than those of their constituents.” We are so far along this corrupting road that it is hard to imagine that we are capable of freeing ourselves from the influence of money on the outcome of our political system. But we should try with all of our might and the following steps would go a long way towards removing the controlling influence of money:
· Limit the period during which the media are allowed to run political advertisements in similar ways as currently practiced in Canada and the U.K.
· Prohibit private funding of election campaigns and replace it with a system of public funding in equal amounts for each candidate.
· Pay members of congress an honorarium of a million dollars per year and prohibit them from earning or accepting any money (other than from existing investments) from private sources for the time of their tenure.
· Prohibit members of congress from lobbying the government for a period of five years from leaving congress.
There is so much the federal government, legislative and executive branches, could do to keep America competitive, but it is not happening. The system is paralyzed. Washington is immobilized by interest groups and petty jealousy between Republicans and Democrats. The voting public should be the boss, but its influence has been hijacked by individuals and institutions with pockets deep enough to buy the subservience and vote of the peoples’ representatives. The net result is that the nation’s business no longer gets done. The federal government can no longer proclaim that it sets the rules of the game by which all constituents have to play. It is incapable of creating optimum conditions for free enterprise and citizens to shape conditions for a brilliant, sustainably competitive future.
The election system
Many flaws in the current political system are the result of the high frequency of national elections in this country. Congressmen have to go to the mat every two years. The president has barely time to get familiar with the office before he has to get back in a campaign mode for re-election. And, as long as private money is allowed to be used in election campaigns, fund raising rather than governing becomes the most time-consuming job for the incumbent.
If, like proposed above, we pay our elected officials royally for serving the nation and provide public funding for their election campaigns, they have no more excuse not to focus exclusively on the job they have to do for us. We should also extend their terms so that they are not distracted all the time by the need to get re-elected. Finally, the system would be served by term limits, which would prevent congress from being dominated by career politicians rather than by citizen servants, like the Founding Fathers intended.
Another major flaw in the current system is the absence of any statutory requirement to address, in a national election campaign, the most important challenges presented to the nation for which the political system will have to provide solutions. Case in point, in the 2012 elections, was the total absence of any discussion among the candidates for national office about how to eliminate the deficits and bring the national debt under control. How can the voting public determine who they want in office, if it has to wait and see how the elected official will deal with the most pressing needs of the nation? For these reasons I believe that the nation would get much better results from Washington, DC if, in addition to the changes proposed above, the following changes were implemented in the election process:
· Have a committee of wise men/women with national credentials establish a list of the major issues facing the nation and require each candidate for national office to publish a position to be taken on each of them. This will inform voters of what they can expect from any candidate, help provide a mandate for the elected officials and increase accountability.
· Decrease the frequency of national elections by limiting the office of president to one term of six or seven years and by limiting the office of members of Congress to four terms of four years for the House and three terms of six years for the Senate.
Other anomalies of the existing election system that detract from the effectiveness and fairness of national elections are: gerrymandering of voting districts; and State by State differences in the rules for primaries and who is entitled to vote in them.
The proliferation of the regulatory system
In the absence of Congressional action, the Executive branch through its bureaucracy has entrenched behind an accumulation of rulemaking and regulation that is substituting for governance. Philip Howard in his seminal book “The Rule of Nobody, saving America from dead laws and broken government” reminds us that while the rulemaking continues from administration to administration (between 1969 and 1979 the Federal Register nearly quadrupled in length) nothing ever gets rescinded, to the effect that the labyrinth of rules and regulations gets larger and denser all the time and in the end nobody knows anymore what is in there. “The twenty-seven hundred page Affordable Care Act is now getting implemented with regulations that, so far, are 7 feet high, with more to come” writes Philip Howard in his book. And he continues: “American government is run by millions (he should have said trillions) of words of legal dictates, not by the leaders we elect or the officials who work for them.” Dead letters substitute for live on the spot decisions by officials who can be held accountable.
This picture is not very pretty. It is outright disturbing. Who is doing the People’s work? Well, I am afraid that Philip Howard is right and that the answer for now is “nobody”. And it shows. None of the important work gets done:
· The national debt keeps growing without any effort to put a stop to it
· Social Security and Medicare are largely unfunded for future generations
· We allow our infrastructure to crumble
· We let immigration happen rather than managing it in the best interest of the country
· We are not winning the war on poverty
· We are not winning the war on drugs
· We are not winning the war on terror
· We are powerless in the face of public waste, fraud and abuse
· We have no national strategic agenda
· Higher education is not uniformly affordably available
· Healthcare is not uniformly affordably available
· We cannot agree on a sensible gun control policy
· We cannot agree on a sensible defense strategy against the effects of climate change
· We cannot agree on a common sense tax simplification and reform
· We allow our mentally ill to roam the streets, homelessly, or hide them from sight in our jails
· We have allowed inequality to rise to levels from where social mobility has become nearly unattainable.
The absence of a national strategy
America has too many people standing at the sidelines rather than playing the field. Nations are successful when they engage the whole population—with hardly anybody left out—behind a clearly articulated vision of the desired place of the nation in the global environment. But a vision is merely that—a fata morgana—if it is not accompanied by a solid strategy outlining how to reach the desired outcome. America is lacking a national strategy policy. American governance has no tradition or statute for the creation of a binding strategic plan that is built on broad consensus and transcends the shifting balance of power between the Republican and Democratic parties. How much sense would it make if there was a constitutional requirement on the president and the leadership in Congress to establish a national strategy, much like companies develop a strategic plan for their business that then becomes the compass by which investment decisions and other resource allocations are made? Such plan should have a long time horizon, transcend the term limits imposed on politicians, and be formally reviewed from year to year to adjust for changes in the external environment.
What’s required is a clear articulation of some overarching bi-partisan national objectives and a popular buy-in of these objectives. America has not had a clearly articulated national objective since John F. Kennedy decided that America was to be the first nation to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely to earth. We can borrow a chapter out of the book of the Netherlands, my country of origin, which—after the flood of 1953—made it a national objective to protect its low laying areas from a 500 year flood. Public policy in the USA is too much influenced by the perpetual election cycle. Big strategies take a long time to be developed and implemented and don’t fit in with the election-driven decision making practices of our politicians. Here comes to light a major difference between the public and the private sector. In business nothing survives without a solid strategic plan and careful, methodical implementation. In public life, politicians get slaughtered if they don’t cater to the immediate needs and fancies of their constituents.But, without a long term plan there is no expected outcome and it is, therefore, not surprising that we are beginning to hear voices calling for a national strategy. The articulation of such strategy is the role and responsibility of the federal government. Note that recent administrations have declared “war” on a number of national challenges, but they have not bothered to rally the nation behind any particular national objective. Can we think of any highly worthwhile broad national objectives? I would suggest that the following would make a good place to start:
1. Wellness and productivity: Creating the conditions and environment whereby most, if not all, of our residents can lead healthy lives for at least 95 percent of a lengthening lifespan and productive lives for at least 75 percent of the same lifespan;
2. Response to climate change: Determine the positives of climate change and take steps to capitalize on them like with a comprehensive Arctic strategy; and defense against the negatives of climate change by protecting people and property from its adverse consequences.
Where to look for answers?
You don’t have to look all the way back to the first appearance of mankind on earth to marvel at the progress made in human creativity and problem solving capability. Just check how people lived in this country a mere 400 years ago—a blip on the radar screen of time—and compare it with how we live our lives today. And think about all the human creativity and problem-solving that was brought to bear to get here from there. These days, the pace of innovation is happening on an exponential scale. Not much changed in the world in more than a millennium, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, in a manner that had an appreciable effect on peoples’ daily lives. Now, by advances in technology—from medical technology, nano-technology, artificial intelligence, to communications technology and astronomy—the way we live changes faster than ever before. While up to the First World War most innovation originated in Europe, the United States has since become the lead horse in the technology race and should be concerned with staying in the lead in the face of global competition. What is required and what is at stake?
What’s at stake is the leadership role of the United States in the world and the sustainability of the global pace of innovation. It is not impossible, but hard to see, that the pace of innovation can be sustained if we, in the United States, don’t challenge ourselves to stay in the lead and take the steps that will enable us to do that.
What’s required is: 1) World class education; and 2) engagement and motivation of the largest possible component of the population; together with 3) proper resource allocation; and 4) the collective will (determination) to make it happen. We need a “refuse to lose” attitude to pervade all social strata. Our people should be concerned about bigger things than who wins the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, the World Series, or the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship. This means that we have to get better at educating people and putting them at work in circumstances and positions where they sense that they can make a difference and, in fact, make a contribution to the sustainability of our leadership position. There is plenty of work to do. For one thing, we have been sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the threats posed to the environment.We are burdening the earth with many more people—and all they bring to bear—than ever before. Nature’s way of dealing with that burden is to produce cataclysmic events, wars, plagues, meteorite impacts, earthquakes, and you name it, to rebalance the situation. That’s not how we like to solve our problems in this day and age. Our challenge is to create conditions under which the earth can accept the burden and people can go on with their lives. Technology will have to be the answer.
Any technology that the United States can develop, that will serve to address the following challenges, will have great global commercial value and enhance both the prestige and the world ranking of the United States:
· World shortage of accessible fresh and clean water and its global distribution
· Nuclear waste processing
· Risks associated with the recovery of fossil fuels and gas
· Alternative energy development
· Environmental impact of any other kind of human activity
Herein lays the key. We should embrace the challenge presented by the current wave of global warming rather than arguing if it is even happening. We should embrace the challenge to find ways to sequester CO2 from our emissions, even if we are only half-certain that these emissions are causing the apparent climate change. And we should embrace the challenge to find economically feasible alternatives for fossil fuels. Which nation is better equipped than the USA to find solutions for these problems? If we don’t find them some other nation will, and we lose the opportunity to maintain our leadership of nations. Conversely, if we do find technological solutions for the challenges presented by climate change and the need for greater human productivity, these solutions will be very marketable all over the world and enhance not only our economic prospects but also our prestige in the world.
Why would the United States government not consider to issue worldwide challenges to find answers to some of the unresolved questions that stand in the way of further and more rapid progress? In 1714, England’s Parliament offered a king’s ransom of 20,000 pounds sterling to anyone whose method of measuring longitude at sea could be proven successful. In an age of exploration, precious time, cargo, and life was lost at sea because ships, on their voyages, were able to determine latitude by the length of the day or by the height of the sun or known stars above the horizon, but not longitude. It took an English clockmaker, John Harrison, fifty-nine years and five prototypes before he collected the prize with a chronometer that worked. Given all the money the government spends futilely, what would be wrong by paying another king’s ransom (which would have to be a little more than 20,000 pound sterling) for finding answers to the most pressing issues of our time, like clean affordable energy, suppression of drug addiction, or boosting individuals’ propensity towards positive attitudes?
Technology should also provide the answer in the raging debate about (illegal) immigration. The United States needs immigrants as much as it has ever needed them. If some political zealots actually found a practical way to send all illegal immigrants home, our economy would be in desperate straits. The issue that needs to be addressed is not keeping immigrants out. We probably need every one of them. The issue is keeping undesirables out and knowing who’s in the country and for what purpose. The technology exists to give every resident of the United States a bio-metric identity card that establishes a forge-proof identity. There is a lot more security in a bio-metric identity card than in the biggest wall or largest electric fence we can build along our borders as a symbol of misunderstood interests.
As a society, America should look at technology to bring business performance and service levels to the next level. Let’s face it. Most of us already work as hard as we humanly can and we may assume that we are about as smart as humans will ever be. Further productivity gains are likely to come from computer assisted human labor. Progress, in any field, will have to come from two sources: Participation by a higher percentage of the population and new and better ways of doing things, i.e. technology. Technology is the preeminent tool of creative destruction. New technologies, new and better ways of doing things, are allowing us to forget about what was and to focus on what can be. They allow us to dispense with the tools and ways of the past and relegate them to the waste pile of irrelevance. The fumbling with the implementation of Obamacare shows how inept government is in acquiring and implementing technology. And yet it is in this realm, of how our government works and how the political system functions, that the country needs creativity and innovation in the worst way. It needs to have the courage to use creative destruction in keeping our democracy fresh and functioning for this day and age. That may require giving the letter of the Constitution a close hard look.
Robert Gates, in his fascinating memoir “DUTY”, reminds us that, “The Founding Fathers had created a system of government designed primarily for the preservation of liberty, not for efficient or agile government.” The question is if, more than 200 years later, it is time for a shift in emphasis.
Could it be possible that the Constitution—which was designed by its authors (James Madison more than anyone else) to provide us with a prudent, balanced, republican form of government consisting of three separate branches and with a citizens’ bill of rights—has gradually been turned against us in some of its provisions? Turned against us, as a result of changing times and conditions that could not have been imagined more than 200 years ago, and as a result of interpretations of provisions of the Constitution by the judiciary branch, particularly the Supreme Court. What raises that suspicion in my mind?
1. For starters, the gun-control debate. All opponents of gun-control throw the second amendment, “the right to bear arms”, at the policy makers who want to protect the public at large from the unbridled proliferation of the most sophisticated weaponry. And the courts have been very reluctant to allow reasonable limitations on the second amendment right. This reality, combined with a fiercely combative attitude from a large part of the U.S. population, frustrates just about any attempt to keep guns out of the hands of those who cannot be trusted with them and keep military or gangster type weapons out of the hands of everyone, except trained professionals who are sworn to protect us.
2. The stranglehold money has on politics. Corporations’ right to lobby members of Congress and fund their election campaigns is being protected by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the freedom of speech afforded us under the first amendment to the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution wrote their document to institutionalize the best form of government they could come up with. The veracity and effectiveness of our government would be greatly enhanced if we managed to keep money out of the governance process. We would be much better off if elections would be exclusively funded with public funds and if public office holders would be highly compensated, but forbidden to accept any money from other sources. But current interpretation of the Constitution stands in the way of moving in that direction.
3. The corrupting content of media. The Supreme Court’s deference to the first amendment keeps us from shielding ourselves from all kinds of propaganda, misinformation, brainwashing, and dumbing down. The framers of the Constitution and their contemporaries were only exposed to the verbal and written word. They had no inkling of the intrusiveness of large screen TV images, retina tablet displays, or smart phone instant imaging. Even radio broadcasts were still a century away. What public good is being served—other than excessive deference to a law that was established more than two centuries ago in a completely different world—with advertisements of pharmaceuticals that nobody but medical doctors should decide if we need them or not? Or with advertisements for ambulance chasers? Or with the dissemination of video games with violent content? What public good is being served with seemingly interminable political ads that are under no test or obligation of veracity? Yet, all of these “rights” are protected by the current interpretation of first amendment to the Constitution.
4. The undue influence of pressure groups. Again under protection of the first amendment, pressure groups like AARP, the NRA, Labor Unions, the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and large public pension funds like CalPERS, have gained excessive influence on the election process and the behavior of our elected officials, once they are in office. These pressure groups frequently take political positions without ever checking back with their constituents to see if, and to what extent, these positions are fully supported. Much less are they concerned with the greater public interest. Maybe, the real problem is, that too many of our Congressional representatives lack the courage of their own convictions and just bend to the pressure of the interest groups that helped them into office. We better recognize that our elected officials are not immune from human frailty and greed. The Constitution should not stand in the way of eliminating undue influence.
5. The curse of too many elections. The president of the United States should be elected for one term—I suggest six or seven years—and not be eligible for re-election. The frequency of elections, particularly for the presidency and the House of Representatives, exacerbates the polarization of the voting public; it keeps those who should govern in a near permanent election campaign mode; it is extremely costly in financial terms, making it harder to keep the money influence out of politics; it does not allow an office holder to complete an agenda. The process would also be greatly enhanced if—by law—election campaigns were limited to running for no more than three months. It would save large amounts of money and keep politicians focused on their job with much less interruption.
If the Constitution, as it is written and interpreted today, stands in the way of addressing these five hurdles to a better functioning of our government—a government for and by the people—then it is time to amend the Constitution. It is not so sacred that it cannot be changed. The framers of the Constitution realized the need for adaptation over time, which is why they provided, in Article V, for the way in which the Constitution may be amended. After, in 1791, the Bill of Rights was incorporated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, it was further ratified to be amended seventeen more times, the last time in 1992. It can be done. And it should be done again.
We are a nation of laws and should, by all means, keep it that way. But that does not mean that we should not amend or scratch laws—parts of the Constitution included—that no longer serve a public good that has been democratically expressed in our time. The task of keeping our laws “up to date” falls on the legislative branch. It is too sacred to be left to the judiciary. This is very much the position taken by former Supreme Court judge John Paul Stevens in his recently published work “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”
America will have to find a way to manage the public sector as successfully as it is managing its private sector. It is unlikely that it can be done without significantly and fundamentally changing some of the rules of the game. Our public governance system fails us for two major reasons:
1. We have failed to update our governance rules and principles for the changing realities in the world we live in.
2. We have let financial interests come in between the People and their elected representatives.
To bring America back to the condition Alexis de Tocqueville found us in, early in the 19th century, as an exceptional, self-governing, people in control of their own decisions and destiny, we need to redress these two root causes of a failing public sector. Doing so will not require—as some pundits will have us believe—abandoning the cornerstones of our constitutional democracy. These cornerstones are untouchables like the separation of powers, the republican structure, the federal superstructure over the largely self-governing States, the bill of rights and the government by the people, of the people and for the people. None of what I have proposed in here detracts from or weakens any of these cornerstones.
Our system of governance is like a centuries old painting, a masterpiece that over time has lost luster from soot, grime and neglect obscuring its original pallet. A painting that has been damaged and patched up by unqualified restaurateurs. We need to carefully restore our system of governance to its original glory by scraping away the layers of sediment and patchwork that have obscured the brilliance of the original masterpiece. And, where it needs to be patched up, let’s patch it up with state of the art techniques that were not available at the time of the creation of our constitution but can now enhance the picture. As it is, our governance system is unfit for future use. It is incapable of meeting the demands of a fast moving, highly competitive globalized environment. It needs to be attuned to the exigencies of the modern age.
This essay is an abbreviated and updated version of a similar argument made in the author's book 'NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism' published in august of 2014 by CreateSpace.