Fort Report: Too Much Power

Jun 24, 2016
Fort Report

I have an old scale in my bathroom. Every now and then I have to adjust it so that the needle sets directly on zero. Otherwise, I really don’t like what it says, and I have enough weighing on me. 

One of the greatest challenges in the country is the deep, widespread feeling that we are out of balance. There is a need for recalibration, for slimming down the current institutions that are controlling outcomes and leaving so many dissatisfied. The current political, economic, and cultural settlement is under deep scrutiny as more and more Americans feel we are not achieving a vision of what we ought to be as a nation and as a people. 

America’s governance system is supposed to operate according to a system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, we now have a system of overdrafts and imbalances. When political, economic, or cultural power concentrates, we stifle our ability to innovate, change for the better, and flourish as a society. This nagging sense that our institutional framework is not optimally serving us demands that we responsibly examine our options. I would like to explore three aspects of this problem and propose potential solutions for your consideration.  

First, Government Debt. When a person can’t pay their bills, their options are limited: cut back, earn more, or start selling stuff. The credit card is merely a delay of the inevitable. You can’t borrow your way out – but our government does. While Congress and the President have to agree on tax and spending policy, deficit spending and debt is a way to avoid difficult choices and hide the consequences. Debt causes more and more borrowing, and borrowing is an unfair tax on the future generation. Borrowing also sells our country’s assets to foreign owners, and when combined with loose monetary policy, creates further economic dislocations. Who gets hurt the most? The poor who can’t adjust prices and those on fixed incomes who see no return on savings. The answer is a rightly crafted balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Second, the Supreme Court. Lifetime Supreme Court appointments give a few people an inordinate amount of power. America does not need to accept an elite group of judges for extremely long periods of time, especially when they have the capacity to enact multigenerational ideology with an outsized impact on nearly every sphere of life. Consider a constitutional amendment that would make justices subject to re-approval by the Senate every ten years. Recalibrating the scales of justice would temper the Court’s ability to radically alter time-honored precedents.  

Third, the Presidency. It is no secret that we are in a turbulent presidential election season. A historic review of the last 100 years shows an increasing tendency to cede more governing power to the presidency. Presidents from both political parties have expanded the reach of the executive far beyond those originally prescribed for the office. Most Americans now believe that it is the job of Congress to implement a president’s policies. The power of the executive is so great that it impedes the legislative branch from operating another check on the balance of power. Conversely, a problem for presidents is that they spend their first two years governing, the next two campaigning, and the next four holding on.

What if we considered moving to a one-term six-year presidency? This would focus all of a president’s energy on governance, instead of a second campaign. Perhaps presidents would also be more eager to find common ground with the Congress, eliminating one source of a hyper-politicization in the country. Of course, with only one term, the opposite could be true, but would it be worse?  

From attempting to micromanage education to homogenizing healthcare, Washington has now federalized almost every conceivable type of problem. The government is not designed to work this way. Washington has a role in creating the conditions for order and stability, including maintaining our security, certain infrastructure, and fair and proper regulation to ensure a level economic playing field. Ideally, the three branches of our government, the Congress, the President, and the Court hold the others in a delicate balance of accountability.

Change is always hard and demands great prudence. These ideas certainly have consequences and should be subjected to rigorous analysis and robust debate by the people. A balanced budget amendment, a Court that is subjected to mild Senate scrutiny, and a one-term six-year presidency might help our country shed some of what is weighing us down. Let me know what you think.