For the second month in a row, America saw anemic job growth in January. Worse, while it remains to be seen whether these numbers are a temporary blip or the beginning of a lasting slowdown for American workers, America’s long term prospects are not encouraging. A recent Congressional Budget Report predicts moderate economic growth through 2017, followed by a longer period of slow growth around 2.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. These are not the sort of numbers that should give cheer to the long term unemployed or to young people struggling to find their first job.
Here’s another prediction: the 113th Congress will do absolutely nothing to solve this problem. Moreover, unless Democrats manage to capture both houses of Congress in the 2014 election — an unlikely prospect, given unfavorable congressional districts in the House and a brutal group of seats to defend in the Senate — or Republicans achieve the virtually impossible majorities necessary to remove President Obama from office, the 114th Congress won’t make much of an attempt to jump start the economy either.
The origin of this problem isn’t hard to understand. Broadly speaking, Democrats believe that the private sector is failing to deliver the kind of growth necessary to lift millions out of unemployment, so the government must step up and goose the economy through infrastructure spending, a robust safety net for the less fortunate, and similar programs that will spark consumerism and enable businesses to restart hiring. Republicans, by contrast, have largely rallied behind a truncated Ronald Reagan quote: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
It doesn’t take an economics degree to see that these two programs are fundamentally incompatible. Every dollar spent to save a school teacher’s job or to extend benefits to the unemployed undermines an agenda broadly focused on minimizing the role of government. Similarly, Republican budgets that slash food stamps, Medicaid and similar programs are direct attacks on Democratic sacred cows. Democrats sincerely believe that GOP “solutions” to the weak economy would exacerbate the problem, and Republicans believe the same thing about Democratic proposals.
Which brings us to James Madison, or, more precisely, the Madisonian system of government. In designing a government, Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “[y]ou must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself.” Though Madison would later propose a Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers initially believed that separation of powers was the primary mechanism to preserve liberty. All legislation must be enacted by two entirely different legislative bodies and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be approved by the President of the United States. So if a bill emerged that would encroach too far on American liberties, the theory was that it would have a tough time surviving contact with each of these three veto points.
In practice, however, governments built upon Madisonian principles have not fared particularly well. In his seminal essay exploring the perils of presidential democracy — that is, a democracy where the executive is elected separately from the legislature — the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz explained that presidential democracies tend towards exactly the kind of paralysis that is facing the United States today. President Obama, as the only official elected by the nation as a whole, has a “strong claim to democratic, even plebiscitarian, legitimacy.” Meanwhile, a legislative body controlled by the opposition party can also claim similar legitimacy — each House Republican, after all, won an election (although, due to quirks of the legislative maps, Democrats as a whole actually received more votes than Republicans).
America’s unusually frequent congressional elections makes this problem even worse. Not only do we have bicameralism, leading to completing claims of legitimacy from Senate Democrats and House Republicans, but we hold a new legislative election halfway through each presidential term. If Republicans hold onto the House and recapture the Senate next November, they will undoubtedly claim a mandate as the winners of the most recent election. Meanwhile, President Obama will still be the only official who was placed in office by the entire American electorate. As Linz warned, “[s]ince both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”
President Obama will have the veto power until 2017. Unless Democrats win an unexpectedly sweeping victory next November, Republicans will also have an effective veto over all legislation. And both parties want exactly the opposite of what the other party wants. This is a recipe for doing nothing, at exactly the same time that the status quo should be completely unacceptable to either party.
The appeal of the Madisonian system, indeed the appeal of any veto point inserted into a system of government, is that it makes it less likely that terrible bills will become law. Had Prime Minister John Boehner been able to enact his full agenda in 2011, that agenda would have included Finance Minister Paul Ryan’s proposal to voucherize Medicare and then gradually phase that program out of existence. If Prime Minister Nancy Pelosi had led a unified American parliament in 2007, the result would have been a public health plan, an ambitious strategy to fight climate change, and potentially much more. With each election, one party would win big, and the other would see policies enacted that it absolutely reviles. The Madisonian system does not allow elections to have these kinds of consequences.
But, beyond the fact that the Madisonian system is presently blocking any meaningful attempt to bolster a struggling American economy, it also undermines effective democracy in a more subtle way. Sixty percent of Americans disapprove of congressional Democrats’ job performance, a number that would probably reduce them to tears if it wasn’t for the fact that 71 percent disapprove of congressional Republicans. Americans are pervasively frustrated with their government, but that frustration manifests as a sweeping discontentment with the fact that things aren’t getting better and nothing is being done, not as a consensus that one party’s agenda has failed and it must be cast aside in favor of the other party’s plans.
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how such a consensus could possibly form in the United States. Americans experience Democratic proposals to stimulate the economy and Republican proposals to make room for “job creators” as rhetoric, not as actual policies that either made their lives better or made their lives worse. If President Obama had a free hand to hire Americans to construct infrastructural improvements, to provide for the unemployed and to pay for it through higher taxes on the wealthy, then the voters could judge those policies based on whether the economy began to perk up or not. Similarly, if Republicans want the nation to believe that we can grow the economy through less entitlement spending and bigger tax cuts for Sheldon Adelson, the best way for voters to discover whether they are correct or not is to see those policies become reality.
It would be wrong to ignore the short term price that allowing the United States government to actually govern could exact upon many Americans. Bad policies have consequences, and those consequences may be visited disproportionately on the least fortunate. In the long term, a more functional government will give voters the information they need to banish destructive ideologies forever. In the short term, many Americans will pay a steep price for this knowledge.
But the price of doing nothing is rapidly exceeding the price of staying the same. If Americans are satisfied with the last several years of very stagnant growth — and satisfied with the fact that our elected officials are hobbled in their ability to address longstanding economic woes — than the Madisonian system could allow us to continue this way for a very long time. If we want a better life, however, our current system of government is not likely to let us have it.