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It's The System, Stupid


The main thing we could do to improve the functioning of the legislative process would be to dissolve the U.S. Senate. Its composition is wildly anti-democratic, its rules are aggressively anti-majoritarian, and its culture holds all this aloft as a good thing.

But the main thing we could do to improve the media's understanding of the problems in the legislative process would be to dissolve the office of the presidency. (This blog, you have to admit, has a very high ratio of reforms-to-sentences.) It's a bright, shiny, simple thing that's not the actual issue but that no one seems able to look away from. You see this in Clive Crooks' column today. The actual subject of the column is the halting and problematic legislation being produced by the Congress. But the putative subject of the column is how Barack Obama feels about the legislation being produced by the Congress. "The president has cast himself not as a leader of reform," sighs Crook, "but as a cheerleader for 'reform.'"

This endless op-ed alchemy in which anger at the hard, complicated thing (our relentlessly dysfunctional system of government) gets transformed into disappointment with the simple, easy thing (the single individual who occupies the White House) isn't just analytically lazy. It's actively damaging. it implies a solution that will not solve the problem. It implies the need for different presidents, or maybe better presidents. Presidents of the other party, or maybe no party at all (remember Unity 08?).

To take health-care reform as an example (and when, at this blog, do we not use health-care reform as an example?), full-scale reconstruction of the health-care system has been contemplated or attempted by FDR, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. If any of those men had been czar, health reform would have been finished decades ago. But all of them failed, or turned back. And it is not because they were all dunces or Democrats, cowards or incompetents. It is because the system is resistant to large-scale change, even when the problem is obvious. In response to these failures, we frequently change the president, or switch out the party that controls Congress. And then they too fail, and we eventually switch back.

Clive Crook's criticism of Obama is that Obama is playing within the constraints of the system. And by focusing his criticism on Obama, Crook, too, is playing within the constraints of the system. But the problem is not Obama. It is the system.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 2, 2009; 4:48 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Fantastic! I have long believed that the presidency should be abolished, Exhibit A being "Bush, George W.". It took a couple hundred years, but the fears of those founders (Patrick Henry is the only one I remember offhand) who felt that the president would inevitably evolve into an unaccountable monarch have, I believe, been realized. There is no reason that the various functions of the president couldn't be devolved to the appropriate Cabinet members, who would be appointed, rather than merely confirmed, by the Congress. Obviously, Congress would have to be reformed as well, but I honestly believe that, done right, such a change would be truly beneficial for the nation.

Posted by: CynicalJerk | July 2, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

The American people keep rejecting your political idea again and again, and you think the problem is with the people rather than with your idea?

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 2, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely right, Mr. Klein. Giving representation to land instead of people is completely insane.
Also some level of institutional change-resistance is probably useful, but a 60-vote requirement is simply too restrictive.

Posted by: jbrians | July 2, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

We'll take it in turns to act as sort-of-executive officer for the week. But all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting, by a simple majority, in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two thirds majority, in the case of more major issues.

Or, we can have some moistened bint lob a scimitar at us, and whoever catches it becomes king.

Either way.

Posted by: daggar | July 2, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

What idea are they rejecting, exactly?

Posted by: Ezra Klein | July 2, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

I suspect Clive Crook and I have very similar ideas about what kind of changes to American public policy would be desirable. But Crook has absolutely ZERO understanding of how things actually get done in Washington, DC, and about the limits of political feasibility.

Posted by: Jasper99 | July 2, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

for starters let's get the media to stop calling the house of representatives "the lower chamber" and the senate "the upper chamber". I like "the house of representatives" and "the house of narcissists". i can't figure out my senator, dianne feinstein, except that she exists in a higher realm than we mortals. what is she trying to do?

Posted by: rafenske | July 2, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

"It is because the system is resistant to large-scale change, even when the problem is obvious."

That's because change and large scale, um, shouldn't be happening. We need to have smaller scale stuff to happen - and see what happens, then. Who thinks that a bloated large bureaucracy like the federal government SHOULD take on something as large as health care reform, all at once, right out of the gate?
We need to start with small scale ideas, see how they work, and then see what happens. Seriously...we are an enormous and diverse country, and we need not look at ONE solution for everyone, all at once. We need to start smaller, not larger. That's part of the problem, actually, that we've allowed our federal government to become so bloated. They are overstepping the constitution all the time, and we the people have let them do it.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | July 2, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I think the Government and the Majority are scary. I'm glad the Constitution protects us from them both.

The Government is not supposed to be efficient. That is why it should only perform limited functions. The problem is that over the years it has assumed responsibilities that it is not designed to be capable of managing. This does not mean that the system should be blown up to allow the Government to more efficiently assert control over our individual lives. What it means is that the Government should return to the scope of responsibilities for which it was designed.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 2, 2009 11:37 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, could you link to your blog posts decrying how the 60-vote requirement in the Senate and the existence of the Presidency prevented the majority from getting its way when the majority was Republican?

Then I'd take your position seriously.

Posted by: Vizcacha | July 3, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I've lately seen a lot of folks attacking the Senate as inconsistent with popular representation. This is a good point. But it's not the only consideration. Our federal system has a lot of virtues, and equal representation of the states in the Senate is a part of that (though perhaps less so after the 17th Amendment). I don't think, for example, that folks attacking the system of representation in the Senate would think that voting power in the United Nations should be based on population.

Regarding the fact that the Senate's rules and bicameralism itself makes it hard for a simple majority to get things done, I think there's value to stability and caution. I agree that the Senate has probably gone overboard with the frequent use of the filibuster, but I really don't want major legislation rushed through Congress. And I don't want, for example, health care reform passed and then reversed whenever control of Congress changes from one party to another.

Posted by: lukegarrett | July 3, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Obama has been at his best when he brokers and honest conversation and focuses the spotlight on the most critical issues. In the healthcare debate his biggest failure, in my mind, has been his inability to play this role. He's promising broadsweeping reform, but he's not being brutally honest about how it's going to be financed. There's scant mention of the waste involved in end-of-life care, and there's no mention of rationing.

Instead we're led to believe that computerization, decreased administrative costs, and some other nonsense will make all the hard choices for us. They will not, and it's the president's job to let us know.

Posted by: jdworkin1 | July 3, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

There's nothing wrong with equal representation of the states in the Senate as long as Senators are honest brokers when dealing with legislation. Look, as much as I would love to have progressive reforms, I don't want New York and California to make decisions for the rest of the county, even if I agree with some of their ideas.

The problems we have are that the Republican party (and several members of the Democratic party) don't like statistics, they don't like science, or they don't care about equal opportunity. The 60-vote filibuster just gives the Republican party a method to tamp down reform when they're in the minority.

Overall though, Ezra's point is largely right. The problem is not Obama, it's the Legislature, and smart people should know better than to lay the shortcomings of the Legislature at his feet.

Posted by: MosBen | July 5, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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