Because the Senate's closing hours resembled one of Edgar Allan Poe's more sinister tales -- wailing winds, bitter grudges, muttered threats -- you might think that Senate procedures are the major impediment to good government. Actually, a graver problem concerns the presidency, and might be lessened by changing the House of Representatives -- lengthening terms to four years and having congressional elections coincide with presidential elections.
Although the principal reason for doing this is to strengthen presidential government, there are reasons for doing it regardless of its enhancement of the president's ability to govern.
It might raise the caliber of congressmen and their work. Many persons, especially those with young children, have the sort of sound values we want represented in politics, but flinch from a family-rending job that involves nearly nonstop campaigning. Furthermore, requiring persons as gifted as, say, Barber Conable (R-N.Y.) to campaign every other year squanders a precious resource: the time and energy of persons with a talent for governing.
But the best reason for the change is that it might clarify and deepen governmental responsibility. The linking of presidential and congressional elections might magnify the "coattail effect" of presidents. It might encourage the electorate to think nationally when electing the national legislature. It certainly would eliminate the deratifying, even delegitimizing midterm elections that aggravate the following problem:
In an increasingly complex society, with an increasingly cumbersome government, policy cycles and electoral cycles are decreasingly synchronized. Furthermore, wise policy often requires short-term pains for long-term gains. But after the pains begin and before the gains arrive, policy can be scrambled by intervening elections. Perhaps midterm modifications are generally required and would not occur without electoral compulsion. But we should face the fact that we systematically -- by the normal working of our system -- diminish the energy of the executive.
The presidential electoral vote system, and the custom of allocating state electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, create an illusion of a mandate more emphatic than most presidents really receive. In the television age, this is an optical illusion: in 1980, when 48.4 percent of the voters voted for Carter or Anderson, the electronic maps at the three networks turned almost solidly the Republican color.
This exaggeration of the clarity of the nation's decision can give a president-elect some momentum for respect. And it can give the country the invigorating (if inaccurate) sense of having said something clearly. That sense and that momentum are highly perishable. But every little bit helps in the struggle to invest government with more coherence than the country's mind usually has. Putting congressmen and presidents on the same electoral cycle might help.
Now, Conable says, with the irascibility that makes us soul mates, that my proposal is dumb.
He says that holding fewer elections is a dumb thing to do at a time when -- and what time isn't like this? -- the people feel disaffected from their government. Running when the president is not running requires congressmen to stand on their own two feet and thus helps weed out the incompetent and unrepresentative. He notes that in spite of the rigors of the congressional life, there is no shortage of candidates, and he says the caliber of congressmen has increased since he came to Congress in 1965.
As for frequent campaigns, he says: "I need to recharge my batteries with local values." And concerning midterm inhibitions on presidents, he thinks any administration benefits from cautionary reminders from the people.
Conable also says, roughly (in several senses), this:
Even you, Mr. Will, in your lucid moments, should be able to understand that the Founders did not want Congress to purr and zoom along like a Ferrari. It is supposed to zig and zag and wheeze and clank because this is a complicated country and accommodating its many interests is a complicated business. Besides, presidents get their way quite enough, and Congress is supposed to check and balance them. The country has as much to fear from precipitousness as from sluggishness in government.
Of course, all this is of merely academic interest because the Senate would never endorse a constitutional change that would enable congressmen to run against senators without losing their jobs. But even on theoretical argument, I am torn. On the one hand, I think that until the country comes to its senses and elects Conable president, he will be blind to the fact, and resistant to the necessities, of presidential government. On the other hand, I probably am wrong. The mind of man runneth not to the time when anyone correctly disagreed with the Founders and Conable simultaneously.