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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The American Presidency and the Need for Reform

If electing a single executive from one party compromises principles of representation, promotes partisan conflict, and encourages poor decision making, we should give serious consideration to ways in which executive power in the United States could be shared across party lines. With shared power, almost all Americans would have a voice in the policy making of the executive branch, solving the representation problem. And with broad representation of the public, partisan conflict could be defused. Moreover, with perspectives from both sides of the aisle on the table, wiser decisions should emerge from the Oval Office.

Shared power may seem problematic, but as David Fontana has observed, it has become much more common around the world for losing parties to be given “winners powers.”  Under the interim South African constitution, for example, the losing party was given seats in the cabinet, an approach that Fontana recommends for the United States.

Switzerland may provide the best example of shared executive power. In Switzerland, the executive power lies in the Federal Council, which has seven department heads who possess equal decision-making authority. Decisions are made by consensus, with resort to a majority vote only in exceptional cases. For more than fifty years, the seven councilors have come from the major political parties (currently five) that represent roughly 80 percent of the country’s voters, and the councilors work cooperatively.

After their 19th century civil war, the Swiss concluded that the best way to bridge social divides was to ensure that all citizens have a voice in their government. And with its broad sharing of power, the Swiss government has been able to avoid the kind of political conflict that we experience—and that Switzerland once experienced—even though its population is socially more diverse than our own. Switzerland has effectively melded its French, German, Italian, and Romansh citizens, as well as its Catholic and Protestant communities.

I think the Swiss have it right. Accordingly, in my book on political dysfunction, I recommend a bipartisan executive, with two presidents from different parties who would share power equally. Voters would still cast a single ballot every four years, but instead of sending the candidate with the most votes to the White House, the top two vote-getters would share the Oval Office. Most likely, the two presidents would come from the Democratic and Republican parties, but a two-person presidency would make third-party candidates much more viable. The Ralph Nader supporter in 2000 could have voted for him with the assurance that either Nader or Gore would run second.

Why wouldn’t two presidents bicker too much and become paralyzed by their inability to share power? The key to making shared power work, as in Switzerland, and avoiding failure, as happened in Uruguay, is to structure the sharing of power properly. For example, a party’s share of power needs to reflect its support among the public. Since the public is divided close to 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, it makes sense to have a 50-50 division of power.

It also is critical to ensure that executives have strong incentives to cooperate and weak incentives to fight. In the case of a two-person, two-party presidency, the two executives would not have incentives to develop a relationship of conflict. Elected officials may be highly partisan, but they are partisan for a purpose. In typical power-sharing settings, one person can hope to establish a dominant position by outmaneuvering the other person. In the coalition presidency that I discuss, neither president could hope to prevail over the other president. During their terms, they would share power equally, and reelection also would come with half of the executive power.

Not only would the two presidents lack an incentive to engage in conflict; they also would have an important incentive to work cooperatively. Having reached the pinnacle of political life, presidents care most about their legacies. George W. Bush’s decision in 2003 to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein is illustrative. While there were a number of reasons for his decision, it appears that he was influenced by the potential for introducing democratic governance to the Arab Middle East and providing a model that could spread to neighboring countries. The possibility of transforming a major region of the world overcame his opposition during the presidential campaign to policies of “nation building.”

If the two members of a coalition presidency spent their terms locking horns, they would not be able to implement key proposals that could enhance their reputations and burnish their legacies. Accordingly, they likely would come to accommodations that would allow them to implement meaningful policy changes.

Even if presidents from different parties could work together, wouldn’t members of Congress undermine cooperation with their own partisan battles? Not likely. In a two-person presidency, nearly all voters would have their preferred candidate serving and would be much more comfortable with the initiatives that emerged from the executive branch. Instead of half the public feeling disempowered and inclined to break the president’s administration, almost all voters would have a stake in the success of the executive branch. There no longer would be a mass of disaffected voters receptive to a policy of partisan obstruction. Currently Eric Cantor’s constituents like his opposition to Barack Obama, but they would not be very happy if he were obstructing an Obama-Romney administration.

For the same reasons, presidential partners would not have to worry that their compromises would leave them vulnerable to primary challenges when they stood for reelection. The 47 percent who voted for Mitt Romney are disaffected and receptive to a radical movement on the right. If those 47 percent had a voice in the Oval Office, they would not respond to the Tea Party. Indeed, Barack Obama faced no primary challenge from the left in 2012 even though he sold the left out on single payer health care, closing Guantanamo, drone strikes, and other issues. The Democratic Party was represented in the White House, and that was good enough for most Democrats.

If it seems unfair for the losing candidate to share equally in the executive power, it should seem even more unfair for the losing candidate to exercise none of the executive power. Forty-seven percent of the vote is a lot closer to fifty percent of the power than to zero percent of the power.

Whether my prescription is the right one or not, we won’t solve our political dysfunction unless we take seriously the need to ensure that all Americans have a voice in the policymaking offices of their government.

Posted by David Orentlicher on April 24, 2014 at 09:08 AM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink

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