Let’s Rethink Governance: Fixing the Top of the Pyramid

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“No one with a weak stomach should watch sausage
—or the law—being made.”

—Oliver Wendell Holmes
US Supreme Court Justice

More and more Americans have started asking, “Does anybody in politics really care about the country any more? What happened to the statesmen, the thought leaders, the compromisers, the dealmakers?” Public opinion polls consistently show that Americans no longer respect or trust their political leaders. A recent poll showed Congress with an approval rating of just 18 percent.

Meanwhile, the news industry, with its addiction to conflict as the standard model for framing the big stories, now relentlessly simplifies, personalizes, and amplifies the differences that divide the various factions.

The practical effect of this paralyzing conflict and deadlock in so many aspects of the political process means that we don’t get the big things done. And without the respect and approval of the public, how can we mobilize energy and commitment for the big challenges we face?
Meanwhile, antagonistic foreign governments enjoy watching us acting like our own worst enemies.

We need to analyze the root causes of the paralysis at the top of the national pyramid and identify specific measures that might possibly change the motivational forces acting on the key players.

Let’s Choose Our Presidents More Intelligently: Character and Competence

Every four years, Americans go through a comical spasm of collective emotional incontinence, euphemistically referred to as “electing the President.” Then they have four years to discover the consequences of their visceral decisions.

Picking a president has become just another of the many channels of entertainment that help Americans avoid the strenuous use of their gray matter. The theatrical production that passes for the presidential election process has become so addictive to all participants—the news industry, the promoters of the candidates, and most of the citizens of the country—that rational thought and discourse seem strangely alien, an unwanted distraction from our amusement.

What Kinds of Presidents Do We Like?

Looking back at the line-up of 45 presidents, we can try to detect some common characteristics that might reflect our collective historical preferences. A few patterns seem obvious, but not necessarily enlightening.

As of this writing, we’ve had no female presidents; one African-American; no Asians; no Hispanics; no Jews or Muslims; one Catholic; one gay (by speculation); 26 who served in the military; one-third with considerable personal wealth, and another third with near-zero net worth.

Strangely, nearly a third of our presidents—14—have belonged to the order of Freemasons. Most had college degrees, but some (Lincoln) had almost no formal schooling.

We’ve never had a president with a name we couldn’t pronounce or spell (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe—Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, etc.). Beginning with Lincoln in 1860, all but two of the next 12 presidents had beards or mustaches. Facial hair went out of presidential style with William H. Taft in 1913; since then, no US president in over 100 years has had it.

Let’s Give the Vice President a Real Job

Reading the Constitution, one might get the impression that the Founders thought of the Vice President as sort of a spare tire, with no other purpose than to wait around in case a main tire goes flat. They prescribed no duties or responsibilities for the Vice President other than casting a deciding vote in the Senate in case of a tie.

Will Rogers, America’s cowboy philosopher, declared, “The man with the best job in the country is the Vice President. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, ‘How’s the President?'”

Through most of our history, vice presidents have hovered in the background, occasionally seen and seldom heard. The candidate for President usually chooses a running mate who rounds out the ticket, broadening the appeal to the widest possible population of voters.

John F. Kennedy chose a Texan, Lyndon Johnson, as his running mate, to offer voters in the Old South and Heartland states a balance between his aristocratic, old-money New England image, and a savvy politician familiar to them. In other cases, presidential candidates have chosen running mates specifically for their blandness, to avoid contaminating the chief’s brand image with someone of a more complex or controversial identity.

Before the opening of the White House in 1800, presidents and vice presidents commuted from their estates to Philadelphia—and later to the District of Columbia—to take care of government business. But for more than a century after the White House became the official residence of presidents, vice presidents had no official residence. Surprisingly, not until 1974 did Congress designate an old mansion, built on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory two miles across town, as the Vice President’s residence.

Let’s Set Term Limits: the “Triple Six” Formula

The Constitution currently dictates that US presidents can serve a maximum of two four-year terms. Senators serve for six-year terms, with no restrictions on getting re-elected. Members of the House serve for two-year terms, also with unlimited re-elections if they can keep winning.

As of this writing, we have five senators past the age of 80, with the oldest at 87. Another 18 have reached their 70s. The average age for all currently serving Senators stands at 57 years. Members of the House average 61 years.

Those averages make it the oldest Congress in US history. The average (median) age of the general US population stands at 38, making a difference of nearly a whole generation between the members and the people they represent. The longest serving member of Congress, John Dingell of Michigan, occupied a seat in the House of Representatives for 59 years. In the Senate, Strom Thurmond of North Carolina served for 48 years.

We have to wonder whether a member of Congress who’s occupied the seat for 20 years or more still has the vision, ambition, and energy to do big things.

Six Years and Out

The largest collection of US presidents ever living at one time included Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton & George W. Bush, Jr. All of them discussed and advocated the idea of changing the period of the presidency to a single six-year term.

This idea has received relatively little attention so far, but it deserves serious consideration. Jimmy Carter and other advocates of the idea pointed out that a single six-year term would liberate the President from the ugly process of election politics and would allow him or her to devote full attention to the affairs of state. He or she wouldn’t have to pander to factions, kingmakers, news pundits, wealthy donors, and political operators from the first day of office, out of a need to get re-elected.

One and Done: Back to the Farm

The same kind of thinking applies to the terms of the elected Senators and House members. The short two-year term of office for members of the House means that daily life for them becomes a non-stop campaign for the next election.

That two-year limit probably has its origins in the attitudes of the Founders, who wanted a government controlled by the elite members of the society—read “elite” as meaning men of means who owned land. That tended to mimic the pattern of the British Parliament, with its House of Lords occupied by the titled nobility—the “upper house,” as they called it—and the House of Commons—the “lower house”—populated by commoners. In the British system, to this day, the House of Lords can override any measure passed by the Commons.

A similar set-up in the US Congress gave greater influence to a Senate—a small body of elite citizens—who would serve for a longer term of six years. The US Senate has the power to “advise and consent” on the appointment of cabinet members and senior officers of the government. Only the Senate can remove a sitting president after impeachment. Only the Senate can declare war.

By setting the term of office for the lower chamber at a very short two years, the Founders may have hoped to keep a steady turnover in the House membership, thereby preventing the rise of seasoned politicians and powerful coalitions who might vie with the Senate for power. It didn’t work out that way. The well-known incumbent advantage means that any new candidate for either chamber faces an uphill battle against the entrenched office holder.

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