We just survived the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and are staring at the possibility of another one within weeks. We all know the issue—to build part of a wall along the southern border or not—but many seem perplexed by the underlying forces that have led us to this point.
Revisiting the foundations of the constitutional order will help us both understand why we have found ourselves in this situation and think about how we might deal with it.
James Madison and the framers of our constitutional order had a complicated understanding of government and its place in society. They were not libertarian, realizing that positive government action was often necessary to promote the common good. But they were also far from modern progressives seeking to make it easy and efficient for the government to act. Call them careful and suspicious governors, perhaps.
That careful suspicion created a constitutional order that helped lead to the government shutdown and may lead to more. Here’s how.
Our framers, by and large, believed that quick, efficient, and unilateral action in government would more often than not lead to bad decisions with unforeseen consequences. They built a system that would require discussion, cooperation, and, yes, even compromise in order to get things done. They built a system, in other words, based on valuing deliberation over quick action. And, to facilitate a slow and deliberative policy process, they built a system that stands on several different legs.
Within the federal government, they split the lawmaking power between a president and a Congress, requiring both to agree before enacting a law (unless a veto was overridden). They also split Congress into a House of Representatives, elected by the people and subject to re-election every two years, and a Senate, originally elected by state legislatures for longer terms and representing each state equally.
These three parts of the legislative process were designed to look and act differently from one another and to respond to different constituencies. The House, elected locally and directly by the people, might sway more often with the momentary passions in the electorate. The Senate, ideally filled with more elder statesmen, would represent their states, and their six-year staggered terms would distance themselves from the passions of any given moment. They were, as is sometimes said, “to be the saucer that cools the legislative tea.” The president, elected every four years by an Electoral College majority, would represent something like a national and constitutional majority.
Participation by each of the three political institutions of the policy process was seen as essential to the making of good law. Officeholders had to listen, deliberate, discuss, and ultimately come to the best decision possible within the existing political situation. This is where American government has broken down over the course of U.S. history. But why? Here are a few reasons.
The two-party system was a development unforeseen by the creators of our constitutional order. Almost universally, they feared the pernicious impact of party politics and warned against it. Here, George Washington’s “Farewell Address” is most well known. As we think in terms of political parties and what is good for them, we lose the ability to compromise and deliberate on the merits of legislation and the common good. The 17th Amendment made senators directly elected by the people, and the development of the primary system and the democratization of the Electoral College has made both the Senate and the presidency look more like the popularly elected House than was intended.
Deliberation, as Alexander Hamilton made clear in “The Federalist,” requires “space” and “time,” within which politicians can make good decisions that might not be immediately popular. Daily opinion polls, the 24-hour-a-day cable news cycle, hourly talk radio programs, and now instantaneously available social media has made it increasingly challenging for politicians to make tough decisions that their bases or the majority in the nation may not like at any given moment and given the information they have available.
The way we now run campaigns also makes compromise and actual deliberation increasingly difficult. The founders anticipated almost issue-less campaigns focused on electing men of the requisite wisdom and character to make good decisions. Today, in contrast, we run campaigns based on concrete promises for action. Once a politician promises a policy outcome, whether it be a border wall or opposition at all cost to the policies of a president, deliberation becomes fruitless and compromise nearly impossible.
And so here we find ourselves today. We inherited a system based on making legislation slow to achieve and founded on deliberation, discussion, and compromise. And we live in a political world where parties, campaign promises, media technology, and increasingly ideologically committed bases make that same deliberation, discussion, and compromise even more difficult to achieve. What is to be done?
Well, we can’t (and shouldn’t) change the constitutional order anytime soon. That order produced a Donald Trump presidency, a moderately conservative Senate, and a liberal House of Representatives. None of them can or should act alone. Our only hope in the immediate future is to adjust our expectations along the lines once considered a virtue in politics, particularly conservative politics—prudence.
Prudence means that we see the political order for what it is and what is actually possible. We look to the long-term health of the nation and the common good of our people, and seek to promote it within the actual possibilities of the moment within which we live and act. Our political leaders would benefit from a healthy dose of prudence that would allow them to work together, both sides willing to listen and compromise for the common good.
But we, the American people, our talk show hosts, and our social-media mavens must also exhibit prudence and accept the possibilities of the existing political order while we work toward the next election in hopes of making it better. As Otto von Bismarck stated, “Politics is the art of the possible,” not the ideal.
Gary L. Gregg holds the Mitch McConnell chair in leadership at the University of Louisville, where he is also director of The McConnell Center. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including his young adult novels published as “The Remnant Chronicles.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.