Gridlock is essential

I firmly believe that gridlock is the essential feature of the American political system.

Ever since I got old enough to appreciate politics, I have heard people complain about gridlock. If our government can’t get its act together and pass [insert legislation here], what good is it? Why won’t Congress work with the President / the President work with Congress?

The underlying assumption here is that our government isn’t doing its job unless they’re getting legislation passed. I think that assumption is wrong, and the best thing that shows it is the structure of our government itself. Our Constitution is focused mainly on separation of powers. We separate the legislative and judicial functions of government, which is relatively common, but we continue on to separate the legislative and executive functions. And still further we cut the legislative branch into two structurally different pieces. Why is this? If we wanted a government that could move much faster, it would make sense to combine all these functions into one branch. Then you’d need only one election, and to convince only one officer of the correct move forwards.

The current American political climate should make it obvious why that’s a bad idea (if you don’t think so, please read instead “the until-so-recently-rectified political climate”; the point here is that it does not matter). If there’s only one officer, and you don’t agree with their views, you can’t do much about the power they have over you. In aggregate this means that political minorities of any type will always be on the losing side and will always feel that pain in real ways (this ignores effects that may arise from having very short office tenure). We can eliminate this problem by having another officer, elected by the political minorities, of equal power to the first one to prevent anything negative they might attempt.

Then you have the question of: how do we determine political minorities? Once we’ve done that, how do we ensure only they vote in elections for the second officer? Perhaps it would make more sense to weight each election differently, so that we can avoid the problem of identification and also accomodate changes in group membership over time. And if we’re gonna do that, we might as well parameterize the number of officers chosen in each election and use it to balance out any remaining inequity, perhaps by distributing them geographically. Once the offices are balanced they will be able to keep each other in check.

By this (admittedly rough) motivation we’ve produced a bicameral legislature. Two houses: one apportioned by state, one apportioned by population. They balance each other so that legislation only gets passed if we generally agree on something. Legislation of different weights requires different levels of agreement.

We also separate out the judicial function (the application of the law to actual use) and the executive function (the enforcement of the law). These are a bit easier to motivate since the incentives that are set up are clear. If we combine legislation with either of these, the resulting branch is too powerful compared to the other. One of the more common setups in governments generally is to have an executive who serves at the pleasure of the legislature, and who is therefore not independently elected; I won’t speak to this case here since I am more concerned with all of the executive functions being combined with the legislative, including the police. Our executive is separately elected, but is invested with the power to appoint members of the judiciary (though they are welcome to then do as they please since they are appointed for life or until voluntary retirement).

By producing the membership of these branches via different methods, we hope to ensure different interests control each (or rather that one interest does not control all the branches). From there the government may only act on the true will of the people (though that’s not perfect).

Since we’ve set the system up this way, the election of a particular execute should not matter. The election of a particular group of legislators should not matter. The appointment of judges of particular persuasions should not matter. The union of all three of these under one banner is what is scary. It may be your banner today, but it won’t always be; and even if it will always be, having one group always favored over another is a bad result and we should rethink our system.

But I digress. I view the separation of powers to be the core of our system. The gridlock that results when we can’t agree is not a symptom of a lazy or over-partisan legislature (in general), it’s the result of our political system erring on the side of caution. Since this is my view, I find myself worried by some of the edge cases. The executive has power to direct the actions of his branch via executive order. This is reasonable (who else should be able to direct the executive branch?) but has been used to, in practice, write new law and nullify existing law. This is in my opinion an excessive power over the legislative branch. Similarly, our executive directs the armed forces. We have fought wars in practice that remain undeclared (which would require the legislative branch).

In conclusion, while American politics have been disappointing recently, I don’t find that to be a cause for alarm. If our system works as intended it will prevent abuse of power. I worry that the system has been stretched by previous officeholders and has allowed power to concentrate under the executive. We should be aware of any expansion of power of any particular branch; and even if we happen to agree with the action in question, we should act to prevent it since it comes with unacceptable baggage.

More on this topic

If you found this interesting, I think you’ll like this stuff.

  • Laws and Sausages is a new webcomic by the writer of SMBC and his brother. It’s about the way the USA’s system is put together. EDIT 2018-09-04: they specifically address the issues of breaking process for short-term goals in 603 and 604.
  • Justice Antonin Scalia’s opening remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing in 2011. He’s got some good examples in here and makes the case as to why the bill of rights in particular is useless without the separation of powers.