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Simple Solutions for Polarizing Paralysis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Benjamin Deitchman
January 28, 2019

This year presents new opportunities to solve our most vexing governmental challenges. Last year was a successful year for problem identification. On the issue of climate change, for example, numerous reports from the most respected scientific and governmental organizations provided strong evidence of impending environmental, economic, and societal damage from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. At the start of 2019, with a new Congress in office, pricing carbon, a “Green New Deal,” and other possible solutions are in the public sphere for discussion. While the potential disasters of a warming world stoke fear and controversy, policies that promote renewable energy development and conservation may find bipartisan support at the Federal level. The co-benefits of clean energy deployment have already bridged some ideological divides in cities and states.

Mitigating and adapting to climate change, however, is not exclusively in the public policy domain. It will require technological and behavioral actions that exceed the scope of governance. The polarization that prevents popular proposals from coming to fruition and drives distrust in the institutions across government and society can benefit from a few simple adjustments to better serve Americans and the globalized future.

The below options for each branch of the Federal Government would require Constitutional changes. It has been over 26 years since there was last an amendment, but with the current president breaking norms of previous administrations it may be time to explore recourse for the future. Until President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it had been a traditional to limit oneself to two terms in the highest office. The 22nd Amendment was after his tenure, but it turned the informal practice into a rule.     

There are calls for major Constitutional reforms across the media from every perspective and outlook. Eliminating the Electoral College and popularly electing the president is of interest, with two of the last three presidents entering their first terms in office despite winning fewer popular votes. There are strong cases for and against the Electoral College, but with the demographics of the country it is hard not to view them with a party-based lens. The primary goal of the three ideas below is to return to a logical and functional government where the branches behave in a moderate and effective manner that protects the citizenry.  

Executive: Separately Elected Officials

In the original structure under Article II of the Constitution the President did not choose every member of his executive branch. The notable exclusion was the Vice President, who was the second-place participant in the Electoral College. The executive branch has evolved since 1789, but one means to limit the President’s power might be to elect other members of the executive branch who will not need to be beholden or serve at the pleasure of the president, but rather possess the independence of directly serving the American people.

In most states a state attorney general runs his or her own campaign and serves independently of the governor. This provides that office the freedom to, for example, prosecute executive misconduct. One of the ongoing challenges in the Trump Administration is the President’s prerogatives when it comes to a Department of Justice that is investigating his campaign, businesses, family, and actions in office. An elected Federal Attorney General would be able to act with full authority without fear of an unjust presidential dismissal for himself, herself, and his or her deputies. Obviously this would require details of how to elect this office or any other cabinet-level position and regulations for how elected secretaries would coordinate work with the White House in the national interest, but it is one method to limit the ever-expanding power currently vested in a single individual.

Judicial: Supermajority Decisions

It also only takes a single vote in the majority to decide in the Supreme Court. For an entity that justices claim is a stable referee, the fact that a case can wind through the entire legal process to end with a five-four decision contributes to the perception of politicization of the courts. If a decision cannot garner support from six justices, perhaps it is on the court to limit the scope of its opinion. Brown v. Board of Education was a unanimous decision. Even Roe v. Wade was seven-two. Wrongful decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson with its “separate but equal” fiction and the internment of Japanese Americans upheld in Korematsu v. United States also had supermajority votes, but to restore faith in justice and return to the non-meddling political center the Supreme Court needs to reconsider the process of deciding cases.   

Legislative: Automatic Government Funding

It is an injustice that while the government continues to collect most revenues during a political shutdown, and essential employees continue to work, the money does not get to the people who earned it. Continuing resolutions should be automatic unless otherwise decided in Congress. If a plaintiff wants to challenge the Constitutionality of paying people for work performed, he or she can go against the elected Attorney General to try to win over a supermajority of the Supreme Court. Automatic continuing resolutions are the easiest win for the American people.

Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman is an analyst and author in Atlanta, Georgia. He is on Twitter @Deitchman.

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