In my recent post, I proposed a solution to the current lack of balance in federal government politics. Because we elect both legislative branches and the executive branch through popular vote, all of the branches consider policy from the perspective of winning favor with individual voters. While we have strident debates over policies, those debates have been mostly unproductive because they pit one group of people against a different group of people to win the question of who gets to benefit from exploiting the government.
Before the passage of the 17th amendment that changed the selection of Senators from state legislatures to popular voting, the states as a corporate entities had a voice in federal government debates. Given the large number of states and their geographic and economic diversity, there is a still a wide range of opinions to support robust debate. However, the states have a distinctly different perspective than individual voters. Individual voters have selfish motivation for their own welfare or benefit, or the welfare of their immediate family and nearby community. In contrast, the states have interests defined by their territory, the entire population residing in that geographic area, the natural and corporate resources available to it.
I think it would be more productive if we used the two legislative branches to argue consistently from these two complementary perspectives. One house to argue from the perspective of individuals who want to maximize their benefits or minimize their burdens from government. One house to argue from the perspective of managing the collective interests of geographic territories, including the industries, natural resources, infrastructure, and low debt.
Instead we have this perpetual argument for control over either house by one of two or so groups who are interested in improving their condition at the expense of punishing the other group of individuals. Control over each house swaps every few years and nothing ever gets settled except for the temporary opportunity for the winning group to punish the losing one. One group is interested in obligating the government to spend increasing amount of money for various benefits that have some socially acceptable justification but will include benefits for them individually. The other group is interested in limiting government interference and minimizing taxes so that they can benefit from more economic opportunity outside of government.
These arguments and shifting control of the houses have been going on for a century. Coincidentally the 17th amendment was passed a century ago. I have doubts that this back-and-forth struggle has been productive.
I think it would be better to maintain a permanent division of two houses with complementary but competing interests. The house should represent the interests of individuals (both those who want more benefits and those who want less burdens), and the senate should represent the interests of the collectives as characterized by the states. Individual interests are for maximizing liberty and income opportunity while at the same time having abundant assistance opportunity when they encounter hard times. The collective interests also are interested in satisfying these individual needs (the state legislatures are elected by popular vote, after all), but they have the additional interest of managing resources and maintaining a budget for what is available to them.
Given our massive debts (especially the unfunded obligations), we are not having the kind of argument that balances the need for expenditures with the availability of funds. Instead, both sides of the debate seek their own ways to rob the state’s historically earned wealth. No matter what side wins, we have the same irresponsible consequence of deficit spending. This occurs because both sides represent individuals who seek higher government benefits or lower taxes. Our government lacks a voice for the collective interests.
In the earlier post I proposed a convention to completely rewrite the constitution to reflect the modern economy. This suggestions restores two legislative bodies with permanently distinct objectives. One house would always be controlled by the population who need government to manage their ability to consume. The other house would always be controlled by the population who need to produce what the consumers need. I think this mimics the original intention of devoting the house of representatives to the population, and devoting the senate to the states. My suggestion is to update the notions as the competition between consumers and producers.
My post was an impractical suggestion. There will be no constitutional convention and even if there were it would be toward increasing popular control of the entire government rather than to scale it back as I think is really needed. Recognizing the ridiculousness of my suggestion, I wrote into the post a satirical exaggeration where consumers live on expense-accounts instead of salaries and will never own property, while producers have salaries but no access to government benefits. The post gave my impression of our current economic system.
I am still convinced there is a value to having a permanent competing voice in federal government to stand for the interests of the collective in terms of actual resources available to deliver the benefits that the larger population demands.
A recent Vox article suggests a practical approach that could restore the balance that existed before the 17th amendment. As apparent in the article’s title, they do not approve of this mechanism and they feel that it will be used for purposes of party-politics. The article points out that the existing constitution permits the state legislatures to appoint electors to the electoral college that elects the president. Currently they base this decision on the popular vote of the president in their states, but they are not obliged to do this. In fact, they could send whoever they want to the college. In the early years of the republic, many states did exactly this, but at that time the presidency did not attract much attention from the general population.
Stripping out the current us-vs-them politics inherent in the article, the mechanism gives the states the independent power to select the president without a popular vote of the president. Without any constitutional amendment, we already have a mechanism that can meet the objectives I proposed earlier. The states already have the ability to restore to the US government a voice for the collective interests of resource-limited geographic areas governed as states. Instead of my propose to restoring this representation in the legislature where there can be a debate over what laws get passed, their representation could be in the executive branch with the power to veto legislation and to take executive action in carrying out the laws.
So contrary to the Vox claim that it is shady (and it would be if used for just the purpose of winning partisan politics), it could be remedy to what is wrong at the federal level. What is wrong is that there is no voice in the government that speaks up for the interests of the collective issues experienced by legislatures who run the states. Neither the two legislative branches, the presidency, nor the courts will currently perform this essential role of countering the give-me demands with the constraint realities.
At a minimum, that resource constraint is the amount of debt we can sustain. We recognized we had a debt problem years ago but that did not stop or even slow the growth of the debt by some 10 trillion more dollars. The states in contrast must balance their budgets. They have the needed perspective lacking at the federal level.
It is possible that the uncontrolled federal debt is making it more difficult for states to balance their budgets. A more constrained debt on federal government would at least constrain its ability to impose new regulations or demands that will impact state budgets. States have a direct stake in how well the federal government is governed.
I think states have a legitimate reason to control a branch of the federal government. The presidency may be ideal for that voice.
Years ago, I had wondered how our system would work if we had an parliamentary system that selected its executive officer or premier. I haven’t thought of that too much recently, but I do recall my earlier impression that I didn’t think it would work as well as our model of an independently elected president. Nonetheless, I did like the idea of having an elected legislature select the president, because these are people who are deeply engaged in the political processes and spend their time confronting the full breadth of current issues. When it comes to selecting the president, I trust the legislature more than I trust the general population to select a competent, qualified, and relevant executive. The thing I didn’t like was that the separation of powers becomes weakened if the executive must win approval of the same legislature with which he should be debating.
Perhaps this is why I like the idea of having state legislatures select a federal president. I get my preference that employed politicians within elected legislatures would select a president. Also, these legislatures are distinct from the federal legislatures who will debate with the president on policy matters. This opportunity takes advantage of something positive about the parliamentary system while still retaining a completely independent presidency.
In contrast to my previous proposal of assigning the state voice to one legislative house (something I still prefer), having the voice in the presidency may not required any constitutional amendments at all. In addition, the executive branch may be well-suited for state control instead of popular control. Most of critical federal government decisions are occurring within regulations issued by bureaucracies. The bureaucracies are more answerable to the executive branch than the legislature. Recent legislation (of past 100 years) are written vaguely to grant the bureaucracies broad autonomy to decide the details of how to execute these laws. In recent experience, we see that the executive branch has more influence on these bureaucracies than the legislatures. The federal legislature is increasingly limited to the task of approving their funding.
These bureaucratic decisions should take into account the states concerns about what their economies can deliver. In any case, the states will be more aware of the impact of precise bureaucratic regulation because they are able to assess the collective impact on the whole population or state’s interests. In contrast, individuals rarely directly experience an impact from any particular regulation. Even when individuals do notice an impact, they are likely to be a tiny minority who will gain no sympathy from a majority who could demand a change for that specific regulation. States are able to observe and quantify the collective impact of regulations. Their direct representation in the executive branch can influence a more pragmatic approach to regulations that have diffuse but cumulative impacts.
I also like the idea of having state legislatures select the president because this will eliminate the popularity-contest spectacle we see in a national elections for president. The presidential candidates would instead campaign directly to state legislatures to win electoral votes. There may not even be a need for primaries so that at the time of the electoral college, there may be many competing names from both parties. The college can evaluate the strength of the candidates and come with a national consensus of terms of the state’s interests in serving their respective populations.
The elimination of president on popular ballots eliminates the current dynamic of low but motivated turnout in midterm election years and high but mob-like turnout for presidential election years. Every election year will be like a mid-term election where the voters who turn out for every election will be those that are following the issues close enough to be motivated to vote. We can eliminate the popularity-contest spectacle that is the presidential election and that harm that causes on the down-ticket elections by attracting disinterested voters.
In presidential election years, many voters are solely interested in voting for the president. But once in the voters booth, they have to vote for the other races. In many cases, their best information is the pre-printed one-sheet flier that suggests the votes that should accompany a vote for their desired president.
In years without a presidential election, the voters will need to find motivation in the lower-level races. This will require them being more informed and that will require more motivation.
Overall, I would prefer we have a constitutional convention to re-calibrate a legal document (the constitution) to reflect how we currently live and govern ourselves. It would be great to be able to understand in a simple published document how exactly our government ought to work. That is no longer feasible with our ancient yet living constitution. A fresh legal contract would be refreshing. It is unlikely that we will ever see a constitutional convention or even if there were one that we would actually ratify its product. The Vox article suggests a near-term solution that the existing constitution should support. Vox describes the mechanism as shady, but it would be less so if the states were to agree to cooperatively adopt a legislative approach to selecting electors so that we can dispense with popular elections of presidents. If uniformly practiced by all states, it would not appear as evil as Vox expects. This shift could instead be seen as a positive development when we notice the value of restoring a state-legislature voice to the federal government and the elimination of the political chaos produced by popular presidential and mid-term elections.