RealClearPolicy Newsletters: Original Articles

Our Stable Institutions of Government

Our Stable Institutions of Government
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Dear Reader —

An unfortunate hallmark of our national politics, besides dysfunction, is instability. Increasingly, with each presidential and congressional election comes a self-proclaimed “mandate” to roll back entirely the policies of the preceding administration or Congress.

This is understandable, given the nature and depth of our political disagreements. And to a certain extent, such back and forth is an unavoidable and even laudable feature of democracy. But the genius of our system of government is that democracy’s natural inclination toward inconstancy is tempered by the deliberative and often inefficient process of lawmaking delegated to our representative institutions.

This dynamic gets played out within Congress itself. Thus the Senate is relatively insulated from the electoral forces that shape the House, making the latter more immediately beholden to its constituents. As James Madison put it, describing the bicameral legislature: “The mutability in the public councils arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government.” Together, the upper and lower chambers comprise an institution that is responsive to the people while also providing a medium in which diffuse, changing, and often irreconcilable interests may be balanced. 

The temptation to circumvent this process is comprehensible, especially when one’s own party is in power — all the more so when faced with urgent problems (as the federal government inevitably is). In this context, compromise and bipartisanship smack of defeat or concession, rather than sound legislative strategy. Whence arises the sentiment that the Founders’ vision, however praiseworthy in theory, proves too idealistic in practice. 

This is ironic, given that that vision is centered on the irreducibility of disagreement and a sober assessment of human nature. (“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison famously put it.) More ironic still — and more important — the attempt to bypass or manipulate the normal lawmaking process to effectuate partisan goals, though useful on the campaign trail, turns out to be quite impractical. 

Consider how little legislation has been passed in recent years — and how difficult routine negotiations have become — despite mounting calls from both sides not to give an inch. What legislation does get through is typically passed along party lines — sometimes exploiting the budgetary process so as to avoid bipartisan give and take. No surprise that the next Congress feels compelled to repeal such laws. Even worse, when the executive branch arrogates to itself lawmaking power in response to congressional gridlock, the laws of the land become dependent upon who happens to sit in the oval office. 

The cause of dysfunction and instability, it seems, is not our legislative system so much as politicians’ misconceived attempts to override it. 

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


Why Democrats Need Wall Street. In The New York Times, Douglas Schoen cautions Democrats against “demonizing” the financial industry.

The GOP Can Do Better Than Alexander-Murray. In our own pages, James C. Capretta calls on both parties to coalesce around a larger bipartisan compromise on health-care reform.

In Reconsidering NAFTA, Be Careful What You Wish For. Also in our pages, Naomi Christensen and Matthew Rooney contend the administration’s focus on the trade deficit between the U.S. and Canada misses the mark.

Congress’s Vanishing Budget. For the Brookings Institute, Casey Burgat & Joshua Huder consider why the congressional budget process doesn’t work the way it once did. 

We Don’t Need Tax Cuts for the Middle Class. In The Washington Post, Kirk J. Stark & Eric M. Zolt counter a popular narrative about tax rates and the middle class.

Untaxing the Rich. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru takes issue with the GOP’s preoccupation with slashing rates for top earners.

The Dangers Posed by Behavioral Economics. In RealClearPolicy, James Broughel praises the work of recent Nobel winner Richard Thaler, but urges caution in its application to public policy. 

Weakening Medicaid From Within. In The American Prospect, Sara Rosenbaum criticizes the administration for using executive power to restructure the public health program. 

Congress, Don’t Forget About Reforming Medicaid. In RealClearHealth, Jason D. Fodeman urges the administration to work with Congress and the states to make Medicaid reform a top priority. 

The Right to Repair Is Inherent in Ownership. Also in RealClearPolicy, Kyle Burgess urges Congress to modify the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to incorporate a repair exemption to copyright protections.

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