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America's Institutions Make Elected Officials Irresponsible

May 25, 1986|Thomas Greene | Thomas Greene, associate professor of political science at USC, is author of "Comparative Revolutionary Movements" (Prentice-Hall).

The presidential campaign timed for triumph in November, 1988, will coincide with the bicentennial celebration of the writing and ratification of the Constitution, 1787-1788. Public attention will be focused, perhaps as never before, on the institutional characteristics of government in the United States.

The presidential campaign that takes advantage of the Constitution's bicentennial will go beyond the conventional strategies of stringing together issues and power brokers in order to build a winning coalition. It will weave its issues, proposals and secondary themes around the primary theme of the American political process itself. It will emphasize the fragmentation, the conflicts of interest and the resulting stalemate that make policy innovation difficult if not impossible and voter alienation probable if not inevitable.

Foreign and domestic crises come and go, but the institutional crisis of American government threatens to abide forever. Political stalemate and policy immobility are ever more threatening as government plays an ever larger part in citizen life. The point is that our government is made irresponsible by our institutions.

Visiting the United States last October, former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson sympathized with American Presidents, whatever their party and their purpose. Whoever he is, Wilson observed, the President must work with "an unworkable Constitution."

Even the scheduling of federal elections reflects the Founding Fathers' agrarian temper. Elections in early November were timed to follow harvest, without risking the communications uncertainties that came with winter's storms. The President's inauguration in March (before the 1933 adoption of the 20th Amendment), and the launching of a new administration, followed winter's thaws but did not trespass on the weeks reserved for spring planting.

When the Constitution was first put into operation, each territorial square mile of the United States was populated, on the average, by fewer than five people; today each square mile is populated, on the average, by more than 60. A century ago the per capita public debt of the federal government was $325; today it exceeds $6,000.

Thus the separation of powers, which may have been appropriate to small government in an agrarian setting, becomes more vice than virtue when big government is called on to play an active role in an urban society well into the post-industrial era. Blessed with economic wealth, military power, and--for so long--geographic isolation, we have been spared the turmoil that, in other countries, made possible the rewriting of constitutions and the updating of institutions. We have become the principal victims of our own phenomenal success.

The point is underlined by the results of a mid-1970s international Gallup opinion poll. Political leaders in 40 countries were asked, "Omitting your own country, which country of the world do you think is best governed?" The rank-ordered results were, 1) Switzerland, 2) Great Britain, 3) Sweden, 4) West Germany, 5) Canada, 6) the United States, 7) Denmark, 8) Holland, 9) Australia, 10) Japan.

One of these countries has a presidential form of government: Only the United States selects its chief executive independently of the legislature. All the others choose their chief executive from a legislative majority, helping to ensure that executive leadership and legislative majorities work together instead of at cross-purposes.

Among those countries on Gallup's list, only the United States and Switzerland have two legislative houses with equal authority--coequal bicameralism. The other eight either have only one legislative chamber or one dominant chamber that, if determined, can almost always get its way.

Nor does the majority of countries have our electoral system: only Britain and its three former colonies (Australia, Canada and the United States) elect their representatives exclusively according to the single-member district, winner-take-all system. The other countries have varying forms of multimember constituencies and proportional representation. This ensures strong and cohesive political parties, as measured by partisan voting in the national legislature.

But even in terms of the four Anglo-American countries on Gallup's list, the United States has by far the weakest political parties. The parties' fragmentation perfectly complements: our separation of powers; our system of federalism; the personal style of politics so strongly reinforced by television and presidential primaries, and our multiplication of legislative authority through an involved system of committees and subcommittees. It's not that our political leaders cynically disregard their campaign commitments; it's that our institutions render their campaign commitments more symbol than substance.

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