In an earlier piece this week, I lamented the growing incapacity of the United States Congress to do its job and pass necessary laws. At the root of the problem is democracy itself. There is simply too much democracy in America.
The President is elected every four years and restricted to two terms. First time around, he (or, as we must learn to say, she) does not take office until three months after winning at the polls, resulting in a total legislative vacuum. Year four of every first term is taken up with the exhausting business of securing a second term followed by four years of speculation about the succession, ending in a gruelling round of primaries and the hoopla surrounding the party conventions. Second term Presidents are invariably deemed to be “dead ducks” from year two-and-a-half on and restricted to speech-making and the overseeing of foreign and defence policy. The windows in which to get things done domestically are thus brief and cluttered, with West Wing advisors working 18-hour days in the hope that the Chief might actually slip something through before the shutters come down.
Thus is the world’s most powerful head of state squeezed to the point of asphyxiation.
Down the Hill, beneath the dome of the Capitol, Senators hold office for six years, which is supposed to shelter them from the shifting whims of the American people. But the system of electing them is positively byzantine. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the upcoming 2016 round:
Elections for the United States Senate will be held on November 8, 2016, with 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate being contested in regular elections whose winners will serve six-year terms in the 115th United States Congress until January 3, 2023. All class 3 Senators are up for election; class 3 was last up for election in 2010, when Republicans won a net gain of six seats. Currently, Democrats are expected to have 10 seats up for election, and Republicans are expected to have 24 seats up for election. However, as of June 7, only 9 Democratic held seats are in contention, as the Democrats have already secured California, with the top two finishers in the California Senate jungle primary both being Democrats. Republicans, having taken control of the Senate in the 2014 election, currently hold the Senate majority with 54 seats.
I hope that’s clear. The pattern for electing class 1 and class 2 Senators is, you may be assured, equally arcane.
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Senators are typically portrayed as white-haired and crusty, embodying in some way the wisdom of the Founders, with a nod to ancient Rome. This is not a bad description, except for the wisdom part. Their average age is currently 62 due to the fact that 13 of their number – all but one serving their first term – are under 50 (one, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, is a whippersnapper of 39). Senators like to die in office. At the upper end, it sometimes feels as if they are waiting to be transformed into statues. John McCain, of Arizona, is running again at the age of 80; seven of his cadre are octogenarians, led by Dianne Feinstein who, at 84, is a mere eight years older than her “junior” colleague from California, Barbara Boxer. Some senators are reasonable and moderate. A few are genuine radicals. The rest, more often than not, are tunnel-visionaries or curmudgeons, wary of change and jealous of their privileges. More than a few do not believe in evolution; rather more reject the idea of climate change. Since the first Senate sat in 1789, just nine out of the 1,963 elected have been black.
Last March, when Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC, to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court caused by the death of the far-right Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican Senators vetoed the anticipated confirmation hearing, saying that no candidate put up by Obama would be considered – this in spite of the fact that the ranking Republican Orrin Hatch conceded Garland was “a fine man”.
But it is across the central lobby that the fun truly begins. The House of Representatives is a bear pit. Members hold office for just two years, and their second year, as well as most of their first, is taken up with fund-raising and glad-handing aimed at securing them another term, and so on and so on into old age and infirmity. Incumbency is everything. It is more likely that a member of the House will die of a heart attack or be imprisoned for sexual impropriety or fraud than that he (or in the case of just 20 per cent of the total, she) will actually be defeated at the polls.
With incumbency such a powerful weapon against electoral vagaries, you might imagine the House would be permanently engaged in getting things done. Not so. Fear of defeat remains strong, and members are obsessed with preventing their dispatch back into the real world. Scarcely a representative from either party does not spend two or three days a week smoothing the feathers of big corporations, rich donors, the trade unions and, most notoriously, the National Rifle Association. In this, Democrats are every bit as bad as Republicans, but it is Republicans, most obviously in Texas, who have worked most assiduously to ensure that, once elected, they are there for life. Congressional districts in the Lone Star state are works of art, more like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle than reflections of population.
Money and endorsements are the lifeblood of Congress. Just as large fortunes are spent on electing the President, so small and medium-sized fortunes are required to keep Congressmen and Senators in place on Capitol Hill. Millions of dollars are spent in even the most pre-ordained races. By by the time the Big One, the White House champion hurdles, comes round, the total laid out is scarcely less than the annual budget of many small countries, most of it provided by a few determined billionaires.
Americans are proud of their democracy, passed down to them by the Founding Fathers via the Proclamation of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They do not see that anything needs changing, just the individuals. The Second Amendment, enshrining the right to bear arms (against the possibility of a British invasion, Indian attacks or slave uprisings) is venerated as if it had been carved into stone as the Eleventh Commandment. When they look up at Mount Rushmore, they see all the evidence they need of a job well done. Up to a point this is understandable. But times change, and people and parties change. If America wants to move forward – if it wants to move at all – it has to stop standing still.
What is to be done? The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing at all. As it was in the beginning, so shall it be for ever more. But in the spirit of Fantasy Football, here is my proposed 28th amendment:
• The President to be elected for five years, limited, as now, to two terms;
• The Senate to be elected in its entirety on the same day as the President, and for the same five years;
• The House of Representatives also to be elected for five years, but two-and-a-half years into the Presidency.
I would also hope to see a daily online register published of meetings between members of Congress and lobbyists along with strict limits or campaign donations from individuals and corporations. But that’ll do it for now. Feel free to tweet your own amendments.