The Crisis Of Governability

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Much commentary on current events in the United States could be improved upon by adopting a more comparative perspective. For example, in his 2000 essay on “The New Separation of Powers” (PDF) Bruce Ackerman grants that the American system of government has served the USA well enough but argues that emerging democracies should consider the failures of similar systems in Latin America and shy away from it. Some of his reasoning:

It is possible, of course, to avoid the Linzian nightmare without redeeming the Madisonian hope. Rather than all out war, president and house may merely indulge a taste for endless backbiting, mutual recrimination, and partisan deadlock. Worse yet, the contending powers may use the constitutional tools at their disposal to make life miserable for each other: the house will harass the executive, and the president will engage in unilateral action whenever he can get away with it. I call this scenario the “crisis in governability.”

Once the crisis begins, it gives rise to a vicious cycle. Presidents break legislative impasses by “solving” pressing problems with unilateral decrees that often go well beyond their formal constitutional authority; rather than protesting, representatives are relieved that they can evade political responsibility for making hard decisions; subsequent presidents use these precedents to expand their decree power further; the emerging practice may even be codified by later constitutional amendments. Increasingly, the house is reduced to a forum for demagogic posturing, while the president makes the tough decisions unilaterally without considering the interests and ideologies represented by the leading political parties in congress. This dismal cycle is already visible in countries like Argentina and Brazil, which have only recently emerged from military dictatorships. A less pathological version is visible in the homeland of presidentialism, the United States.

In unrelated developments, the President has proclaimed that there are no “hostilities” in Libya and the hot policy debate among intellectuals is about whether or not the administration should circumvent the statutory debt ceiling by exploiting a loophole in the existing coinage statutes that grants the Treasury Secretary discretion to mint coins of arbitrary denomination as long as they’re made of platinum.