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The Founders and the States

Alon Loncar writes in with a good point:

One thing many people, including many limited government conservatives, say regarding Congress' snail's pace is that the system created by the Founders was more or less designed to be inefficient.

However, one key reason it was designed in such a way, was so that Congress and the federal govt. would not be able to pass much legislation and thus expand its power, encroaching on states' rights. Well, clearly that hasn't succeeded (it's irrelevant if you think that's good or bad for purposes of this discussion). The federal government is heavily involved in the nation and economy, so the inefficiency designed into the three branches of govt. (more so Congress) now works against us. Given that the federal govt. is so involved, now by default we need a Congress that can be more nimble and pass needed legislation quicker.

I'd agree with that, of course, but I'd just add that all the founder-worship is a bit bizarre. These guys kept slaves. They whored around. They loved France. They wore wigs. Some of them didn't even believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. For all that, they wrote an uncommonly concise and effective constitution, but they were men, not gods. America was not a superpower. It did not have 50 states or 300 million people. There was no Internet or lobbying industry. Senators did not have Twitter accounts. Women could not vote. Facebook did not exist. As such, Sarah Palin could not have been foreseen.

Things were different then, and because of that, they need to be different now. In particular, the construction of our government was a way of solving the central problem of the nation: binding 13 fractious colonies into one union. But that's not the central problem facing our country in 2009. Instead, we are staring at a fiscal crisis caused by health-care costs and a planetary crisis caused by greenhouse gas emissions. And the unintended effect of how we solved that first problem -- we made the government weak so the states wouldn't lose their autonomy -- is impeding us from solving our current problems.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 17, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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I think a lot of Founder worship comes from the idea that America is a dream or ideal. If the Founders built a system with the intention of letting this particular dream/ideal flourish, then every change has to be considered in whether it helps or hinders that dream/ideal. Now, of course, the Founders were anything but a group that agreed on everything, including ideals and dreams, so it's not a very strong argument, but when have facts ever gotten in the way of mythologizing America? And to be fair, we liberals tend to invoke the dream of America when things like free speech are being impinged.

Posted by: MosBen | August 17, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I remind you that the first thing Hitler did when coming to power was succeed in pushing a law that abolished the long-powerful states of Germany to centralize power for the sake of efficiency.

I am sorry but I can not support increasing the power of the federal government. They have the military and that makes them powerful enough.

States provide a good and necessary check on federal power and their authority should be increased, not weakened as Ezra suggests.

Posted by: lancediverson | August 17, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I'd also object to Alon's interpretation of the Founders' intent. Madison and Hamilton, while paying lip-service to state's rights in the Federalist papers, were heavily in favor of a strong central government. Madison in particular felt it was absolutely essential that the federal government be running the show.

The previous Constitution was strong on state's rights, and was a disappointing failure in practice. You couldn't get a darned thing done - that was a, some would say THE, major motivation to have a constitutional conference in the first place.

The Senate was designed to slow down the House, but the Founders expected the House to still run the legislative show. The Senate is NOT functioning as they intended right now. It's performing it's duties to the House too well, and bringing the entire government, including the Executive and Judicial branches, to a full or near grinding halt (forget legislative ambitions - judicial/executive appointees anyone?). That is an excessive concentration of power as far as the Founders would be concerned.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | August 17, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

It's funny how the Constitution is "not a suicide pact" when national security and civil liberties seemingly conflict, but when its structure prevents us from solving basic problems, the answer is "only the governor of Mississippi can keep Barack Hussein Obama from rolling Bradley fighting vehicles from rolling down main street!!!!"

Posted by: JEinATL | August 17, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Great post. I love the take-down of the founding fathers. I'm going to have to use that in the Am Govt class I teach.

Posted by: hankgreene1 | August 17, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

If anything, the sand slowing the gears in political machine at the moment is public scrutiny - not the "construction of government". Thank goodness for the recess. The transparency and public debate it has afforded is the only thing that kept the citizenry from being railroaded unawares.

The Dems had hoped to deliver a bill before the recess and pass it shortly thereafter - in other words, before anyone knew what hit them.

Posted by: tbass1 | August 17, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Most of the Founders believed that in a short time, probably about 50 years, a powerful 'faction', by which they meant just such a thing as our healthcare-drug-insurance industry nexus, would take over the government, and another revolution would be necessary.

That is why they included ways to amend or rewrite the Constitution.

One thing we could do would be to change the term of a senator from 6 years to 4, or even 2.

This would hardly be the first time we've trimmed the horns of the Senate- remember, they weren't elected until we changed the Constitution to end the days of appointments.

Posted by: serialcatowner | August 17, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, maybe in a future post you can explain how constitutional checks and balances are causing the Democratic party to split in half over health insurance reform, or how removing those features would somehow unify the party.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 17, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

"States provide a good and necessary check on federal power and their authority should be increased, not weakened as Ezra suggests."

Oh, the sweet sweet smell of segregation.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 17, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, your ad hominem approach to the Founders, lighthearted though it is, is kinda rude, man.

Also, you're exactly wrong. They didn't make the Feds weak, they intended to make the federal government strongest among all the factions, and they succeeded.

The states can't win against the feds because the framers set it up so they couldn't - deliberately, as a result of their discussions.

Read Madison's notes of the Federal Convention, the discussions they held that whole hot summer. Who cares how they were in their personal lives, in that very different culture. Read their minds, what they thought, and what they intended.

Then talk about the intent of the framers.

Posted by: wapomadness | August 17, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

By the way Ezra, the cite on your recommended education is House Document No. 398, "Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States."

It's a heritage package of knowledge that you owe yourself some day.

Posted by: wapomadness | August 17, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

What the founders intended depends on which founders you mean. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay wanted a strong central government. There has always been a conflict between the two positions.

Posted by: anandine | August 18, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

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