Is America still governable?
That is the most pressing question to have emerged from the Obama era. After a flurry of legislative activity in 2009-10, in which Democrats enjoyed that rare privilege of controlling the presidency and huge majorities in both houses of Congress, our government essentially ceased to function.
In decades past, divided government wouldn't have prompted an existential crisis. There was a time when the two parties cut deals, greased with some pet projects for individual legislators. But as many have argued, Republicans responded to Obama's presidency by discarding traditional negotiation in favor of a reactionary purism. Ordinary governance has ground to a halt, and the nation has staggered from one manufactured crisis to another.
It's hard to see when this dynamic will end. Republicans, through a combination of gerrymandering and luck, have a death grip on the House. The Senate will be up for grabs in both 2014 and 2016, but the Democrats have won five out of the last six presidential popular votes, giving them a significant edge in the competition for the White House. It's divided, dysfunctional government as far as the eye can see.
We need to think about adapting our founding document to a new political age. Tom Coburn, the outgoing Republican senator from Oklahoma, is right: it's time for a Constitutional Convention.
Article V of the Constitution stipulates two ways the Constitution may be amended. Congress can pass an amendment with a two-thirds supermajority in both houses, which must then be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures. It also says a Constitutional Convention can be called if two-thirds of the states support it. Amendments coming out of the convention, which would be composed of state delegates, then need to be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures (or state conventions).
Granted, Coburn's actual amendment proposals are largely terrible. He wants a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and to "re-establish the powers of Congress," whatever that means. Term limits don't have anything to do with current congressional problems, and a balanced budget amendment would plunge us into immediate depression, among other hair-raising disasters.
Furthermore, an Article V convention has never been tried. So, as Philip Bump writes, nobody has a clear idea how one would work. (In fact, depending on how you calculate it, two-thirds of states may have already called for a convention — on the wretched balanced budget amendment, naturally, given the Republican domination of statehouses.)
But realistically, a convention could happen if there was widespread political pressure, with a coordinated presentation of fresh petitions that definitely fit the Article V language. In the past, that's usually the point at which Congress steps in to control the process by passing amendments itself, but with this Congress, it's probably a safe bet that it will do nothing.
So what needs amending? Setting aside Coburn's proposals, those on the left, for example, have called for radical restrictions on campaign finance — an Occupy Wall Street offshoot called WolfPAC has managed to get such a petition passed in Vermont and California in the last couple months. Others have called for a right-to-vote amendment. Both proposals would make our system far more open and democratic.
But we must also consider changing the fundamental structure of the Constitution, particularly the Congress, by far the most rotten branch of government. It is inherently far too difficult for new legislation to be passed, creating a clumsy, ham-fisted governing apparatus that Stephen M. Teles has dubbed our "kludgeocracy problem." Combine that with an ideologically and procedurally extreme Republican Party, and you have a recipe for paralysis. Indeed, as Juan Linz has demonstrated, American-style democracies have collapsed in every single other country that has implemented them.
If I had my druthers, I'd scrap both Congress and the executive in favor of a tried-and-true parliamentary democracy. But there are a lot of other less radical reforms out there. We could double the size of the House, and make the new half elected by proportional representation. Instead of requiring the approval of the House, Senate, and president to pass laws, we could opt for any combination of two. We could have the president elected by the House; install term limits for the Supreme Court; establish semi-proportional representation in the Sentate; mandate nonpartisan redistricting; and much more.
Some of these proposals could be considered liberal in their bent. But the main point is to restore basic democratic principles. An elected government ought to be able to implement its program. If it is voted out, a new government ought to be able to reverse that program.
To be sure, any such convention that happened in the next year or two would probably collapse in bitter acrimony. Conservatives benefit the most from our wildly undemocratic constitutional structures, and will likely resist their dissolution.
But the point is to start this long-term process of constitutional reform. It took decades to get direct election of senators in the Constitution, but it did eventually happen. The first step is to begin talking.