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Commentary: Is It Time To Question The Very Structure Of Government

aerial view of Capitol Hill, D.C.

A recent David Brooks column in the New York Times dealt with the frozen gridlocked government in Washington, D.C.  This gridlock prevents the enactment of new programs or the adaptation of existing ones.

Brooks also noted that the situation is compounded by the vast array of interest groups (often supplying campaign monies) that governs legislative behavior. And our litigious society seeks judicial remedies at every turn, furthering gridlock. In addition, compromise has become a long lost concept as political actors proclaim the righteousness of their beliefs and actions.

For a good swath of our citizenry, government is the problem. The sometimes egregious behavior of banks and corporations is overlooked. The impulse to greed inherent in capitalism is forgotten while every governmental shortcoming receives constant attention on cable news.

What is not discussed is whether the governmental structure laid down in the Constitution, as amended and interpreted, is still suitable for modern life.

Even questioning that structure reeks of heresy. We have been taught from a very early age that the U.S. has the best system of government of any land, superior to non-democracies and other democracies as well. But our separation of powers and checks and balances, including a bicameral legislature and an executive removed from the legislative, has resulted in a country that is slow to change. And the impetus for trying to reach broad consensus and even broker compromise that came from political parties has faded.

As political parties have weakened, electoral contests have become more about the individuals involved and the money behind them. The writing of party platforms every four years is a meaningless exercise, because they are ignored hours after they are adopted. In the past 20 years, the slowness has turned glacial. The divisions are far greater; interest groups are much stronger. 

With all the sturm and drang about our present predicament, no one broaches the idea of constitutional change. When the Senate moved to a simple majority for presidential appointments, a number of pundits and political actors were aghast. Yet the filibuster is not mentioned in the Constitution. Any other change to remedy the present impasse seems highly unlikely. Turf and tradition dominate. In fact, potential remedies rarely teach even the level of polite speculation.

If we turn our focus to the metropolitan area, we also see considerable reluctance to change structures that impede efficiency and/or economic growth. The comfort of present arrangements seems to keep people from serious considering alternatives for a variety of reasons. Conflicts in the nation’s capital often come down to us vs. them, and that is also the case right here at home. Some groups wish to preserve their power through elected office, some wish to have officials they know, and some wish to preserve their own jobs (e.g., mayor or police chief). Seeing ourselves as an interdependent community is difficult for many.

Institutions set the parameters in which political activity takes place. They draw the line setting forth what is possible and what is not. If institutions are altered, behavior will still take awhile to catch up because the people who run them usually remain. And when institutions have been in place for decades, questioning them becomes more difficult. There can be tinkering at the edges but true overhaul is doubtful.

Politicians are earning negative rating these days largely because they are focusing on the incentives in their environment. And the biggest of those is re-election. So long as playing to the loudest faction and casting opponents as dangerous are rewarded, actions are not likely to change. Is it human nature or politics? Political behavior is complex but it does result from the underlying government structure. 

Perhaps locally we can address some of the institutional boundaries that divide us. St. Louis is not alone in this regard though the area is particularly fragmented and the central city has a weak underpinning, derived from decisions made in 1876 and 1914.

Nationally and locally we have to come to understand the limitations of institutions we may have revered. Government is not necessarily the problem; it is how it is structured. There is no utopia, but different sets of institutions may be associated with different results.