Scott Rasmussen: Checks, balances, loopholes
The New York Times recently ran an op-ed column calling for the end of midterm elections. Since the column was posted on the eve of a midterm election leading to record Republican gains, many readers presumably just rolled their eyes and chalked it up to the Times being opposed to anything that helps Republicans.
There is probably some truth to that. If the Republicans win the White House in 2016, the Times will likely find substantial merit in the 2018 midterms.
But there is more to the story than just partisan cheerleading. The Times column, written by David Schanzer, a Duke University professor, and Jay Sullivan, a Duke student, contains a dark undercurrent of desire to free those in power from accountability to voters. “In the modern age,” they write, “we do not need an election every two years to communicate voters’ desires to their elected officials.”
That is technically true. Elected officials can find out the desires of voters, but that doesn’t mean they act upon them. Getting politicians to respond to voters requires elections. Even in an age where incumbents routinely get re-elected, the fear of being rejected by voters can have a powerful impact on the legislative process.
In fairness to Schanzer and Sullivan, they frame their objective as a desire to make government work better. They worry about the fact that midterms tend to “weaken” presidents and “cripple” their agendas.
To fix this perceived problem, they advocate having all federal officials on the ballot at the same time. Let the people elect senators and tepresentatives only when there is a presidential election. With such a system, those elected would have four years to develop their theories and projects without interference from the voters. That’s a reasonable approach if your goal is to have a more energetic and efficient government.
However, it misses the larger point. The purpose of our political process is not to create a government that works. It is to create a society that works.
Those are two very different objectives.
A government that works well can be dangerous to society if it’s run by ambitious men and women seeking to use it for their own purposes.
That’s why our government was established with a careful system of checks and balances. Today, many are frustrated when the House and Senate can’t agree on what some see as common sense legislation. While frustrating, that’s the way the process is supposed to work. As James Madison put it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
The fact that representatives are elected for two-year terms, presidents for four years and senators for six is a wonderful feature of our electoral process, rather than something to be fixed. It limits the amount of change that can be brought about by the passing passions of the moment in any individual election. It makes it harder for ambitious and ideological politicians to overwhelm the common sense wisdom of the American people.
Our system of checks and balances is not perfect. But the problem is not that it places too many limits on politicians. It’s that presidents and other politicians have found too many loopholes to escape the appropriate limits on their power.