Today Congress is either going to pass a last-minute spending bill to keep the government open, or the government is going to shut down. Either way, the situation is an embarrassment. It has been many years since Congress went through anything like a normal appropriations process, where legislators have the time to comb through the federal budget and make thoughtful decisions about how to allocate taxpayer dollars efficiently.
The hour-by-hour style of conventional news coverage tends to obscure the big picture: the perpetual crises the US government has suffered over the last decade are a symptom of America’s deeply flawed constitutional system. This isn’t a new insight on my part. You can read Matt Yglesias’s classic 2015 write-up of the argument, which in turn draws on a large body of political science literature.
The basic issue is that the American system of checks and balances was designed for a nation without ideologically polarized parties. For most of the 20th century, there were genuinely liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and that meant there was room for the kind of compromise and horse-trading that’s required to make our system of government—with its many veto points—work. But now that the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican in both the House and the Senate, compromise has become more and more difficult.
The problem is compounded by the fact that it’s so hard to remove a bad president from office. If Donald Trump had been elected prime minister in a parliamentary system, Republicans would have recognized their mistake months ago, deposed him, and chosen a new leader. Instead, Republican members of Congress feel immense pressure from their base to rally around an obviously incompetent president.
I explain Matt’s argument to people pretty frequently, and I usually get the polite equivalent of an eye roll. America has had the same basic constitutional structure for so long that it’s hard to even imagine changing it. People who talk about it too much risk being seen as a nut.
But Matt is right, and eventually everyone is going to realize it. The only question is how severe of a crisis we have to have before people start to take it seriously. Unfortunately, I think it’s likely to take a really big crisis—bigger than any we’ve experienced since the 1860s—before Americans seriously consider significant changes to the way the US government works.
But it should be possible to widen the Overton window on this, which might improve the chances of fixing the problem before a catastrophe occurs. There are lots of ideas that are a little out there—Social Security privatization, single-payer health care, nominal GDP targeting, a universal basic income—but nevertheless have networks of think tank scholars, academics, and activists working to make them more mainstream.
People in these networks work on fleshing out the details of how these reforms would work in practice. Reporters can call these scholars up and get quotes saying that the real problem behind this week’s mini-crisis is that the nation hasn’t adopted this or that more fundamental reform.
Every ambitious reform starts out sounding a little crazy, but if the arguments for idea are persuasive then it will gradually pick up more followers and become an idea that people feel they have to take seriously when covering the topic. Then, sometimes, the ideas get attached to a winning political coalition and become policy.
Constitutional reform is a little different from the other ideas I mentioned because the hurdles to fundamentally changing the Constitution are much higher than the hurdles to overhauling the health care system or Social Security. Probably the only way we’ll get reform is with a significant political crisis—a war, worse-than-2008 economic crisis, military coup, etc.
In these kinds of extreme situations, people will be looking for more ambitious reforms. But if the necessary groundwork hasn’t been laid, there’s a danger that people will draw the wrong conclusions and make the wrong reforms—or no significant reforms at all. Having a network of activists and scholars ready with a cogent explanation of what went wrong and a menu of reform options greatly increases the chances that we’ll only have to go through one major crisis, rather than suffering an increasingly wrenching series of them.
So if you’re a think tank president, a foundation grantmaker, or just a rich guy looking for a way to make the world better, this should be on your radar screen. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t take very much money to turn a good but obscure idea into an idea that normal people feel compelled to take seriously.