Executive action in a gridlockracy

During President Obama’s State of the Union last night, he announced many different ways he would use his executive authority to accomplish his party’s priorities. In my view, this is mostly good news on the straight policy — indeed, especially when it comes to climate change, such action is critically important.

However, it also indicates something more troubling: the crumbling of America’s Madisonian structures. Our political system, by separating powers, is supposed to enable compromise. But when compromise is impossible, power trickles towards the executive. President Obama is content with tinkering around the edges of policy. But will all future presidents?

From the speech:

So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do…I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible…I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air…I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour…

I met some Democratic Members of Congress yesterday, and most of them expressed enthusiastic support for this kind of action. This is not surprising, since executive action is now the only hope these folks have for any sort of progress on their substantive priorities. But I can’t help but feel a little bit unsettled that legislators are cheering on the executive for carrying out what are supposed to be their constitutional priorities.

James Madison, the main figure behind the constitution, would be surprised at this development. After all, Congress is supposed to jealously guard its power:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others… Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.

I think it’s clear now that Madison was just completely wrong. Indeed, he probably had it backwards. Any democratic government must be able to accomplish at least few important things (like, say, paying the army). But by making compromise a necessary precondition for any action, Madison-style systems are vulnerable to paralysis and collapse. Of Madisonian democracies, all but America eventually fell apart — Chile was the only one to last for a significant amount of time. America itself almost fell to bits in 1860, when a reactionary faction demanded their agenda or nothing.

At last measure, Congress’s approval rating came in at 13 percent, up from a previous low of 9 percent. Imagine if Nixon faced a legislature so unpopular.

Again, I don’t blame the president for doing what he can, and I don’t think the government is going to collapse tomorrow. American democratic instincts remain strong. But it’s a sad day indeed when Congress — the Article I branch, what the founders imagined as the heart of American democracy — is increasingly a clownish and despised sideshow to the business of government.

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