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« Gen. Paul Tibbets, R.I.P. | Main | Unions Make Inroads »

Our Inefficient Constitution

There is nothing new under the sun. Whenever the Left senses it's got an all-too-transient political advantage, it bemoans that thing called, "The Constitution," standing in the way of all the good they could do, if only permitted to work their will, unrestrained. Paul Campos presents the latest example in his November 6 column for the Rocky.

First, the structure of the national legislature is wildly undemocratic. What exactly is the justification for, in this the Year of Our Lord 2007, giving a senator from Wyoming approximately 70 times more power per voter represented than one from California?

In an era in which almost all of the most important political decisions are made at the national rather than the state level, the structure of the Senate essentially gives senators from small states a license to steal federal tax dollars for the benefit of their sparsely populated fiefdoms.

And, as Levinson the political scientist demonstrates, they are exceptionally good at doing so. Hence we get $50 million bridges to nowhere, economically and environmentally insane subsidies for various farming and ranching interests, and so forth.

In fact, states were and remain the basic political unit of the American republic. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is one of the Foundational Laws of the United States precisely because is sets forth the rules for the creation of new states on an equal footing with existing states, and the law that once a state is a state, its boundaries are fixed. (Those of us from Virginia, while we don't exactly miss those western counties, don't exactly like the way they got their own "independence," though.) Of course, if your goal is to eviscerate Federalism, by making "all the most important political decisions ... at the national level," the only logical thing to do is to erase distinctions among the states.

In fact, the notion that smaller states are grifters, living off the largess of the larger states, is more than passing strange. Back in 1912, Woodrow Wilson was making the same arguments for demolishing federalism on the grounds that the larger states had rigged the system in their favor.

It never seems to occur to Campos & Co. that the real problem here isn't the "power" of the small states, but the fact that the Federal government has arrogated the right to dispense all sorts of favors that by right it oughn't be dispensing. The problem isn't the pigs, it's the trough. (Don't worry, Prof. Campos. Senator and Representative Salazar will be able to continue (or resume) collecting their farm subsidies.)

Second, the structure of the Constitution makes it very difficult to undertake any kind of serious legislative reform. Not only do both houses of Congress have to agree to exactly the same statutory provisions for a bill to become law (a requirement that, as Levinson points out, isn't found in many bicameral legislative systems) but in addition the Constitution gives one person - the president - the power to veto legislation for any reason he (soon to be she) likes.

These extremely high barriers to legislative action can be defended on the basis of various ideological preferences (most notably the view that, in general, only rich and powerful people should be able to get laws passed). But Levinson's point is that hardly anyone even bothers, because the structural features of the Constitution are treated as if they were equivalent to the laws of thermodynamics, rather than products of political choices made 220 years ago, and that are ripe for revisiting, given that the world has changed somewhat since the 18th century.

In fact, I suspect nobody even tries because the "high barriers to legislative action" have been successfully circumvented by outsourcing the legislative function to the executive. You're subject to far more Federal regulation - from the size of the airbags in your car to the water flow in your toilet - than you are to Federal laws.

The barriers to legislative action are intended to drive the country towards consensus, to make sure that action isn't taken without the consent of a broad swath of the governed. What this has to do with the "rich and powerful," isn't clear, any more than the year has to do with the appropriateness of federalism.

Third, Levinson points out that the Constitution gives us no way to get rid of an incompetent president, prior to the next election. This, under present circumstances, seems like an especially unfortunate oversight. He suggests the president should be subject to removal at any time, on the basis of a two-thirds vote of the legislature (he's careful to point out that such a procedure needs to be structured so as to allow the president's party to retain the office for the rest of the president's term).

This sounds like a call for more Wilsonian "progressivism." Wilson would have been happy to make the President subservient to the Congressional majority, which would certainly be the natural outcome letting Congress replace the President at will. So in addition to erasing state boundaries, Campos would accelerate the erasure of the boundaries between branches of government.

In short, Campos doesn't seem to like any of the mechanisms built into the Constitution specifically to make sure that power stayed distributed broadly throughout the Republic, safeguards that are the reason we've been so stable for so long. They get in the way of "efficiency," but then, opposition always does.

Progrssively more poor. Progressively less free.


Seems like sum ole boys called the "Antifederalists" had an issur with it too.

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