The hallmark of our liberal republic is the federal congressional presidency established by the Constitution as a replacement to the Articles of Confederation. The Founders did not completely agree over how the new government should have looked like. Although the consensus at the Constitutional Convention was that there ought to be a distinct legislative and executive branch in order to maintain a separation of powers and divided government to prevent “factions” or dominant interest groups and political parties from emerging; they were dead wrong.
Failure at Its Inception
The founders intentions began to fail immediately after the new government was formed. Two main parties emerged, the Federalists and Democrat Republicans; marking the beginning of Americas two party system (aside from the brief one part system in the 1820s).
And it shouldn’t have been unexpected either. The single member district voting method the founders adopted naturally encourages strategic voting leading to a two party system.
The American people are loud and clear when it comes to their view of our two major parties; 57 percent, of those surveyed in Gallup’s annual governance poll say a third major political party should exist. Only 37 percent believe two parties are doing just fine representing Americans.
Party affiliation is also at historic lows with a huge and increasing majority of Americans identifying as independents
This duopoly forces voters to choose between lesser of two evils. Their views are many times not accurately represented in congress and the parties have little to no incentive to implement reforms many Americans would like to see but would leave the parties with less power.
Creation of the Patron State
Under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the founders system took another toll as party elites and servants close to them created a system of a patronage known as the spoils system. Not only were factions controlling our government but they were leeching off taxpayers while doing it.
There were many notorious cases of elected officials handing out jobs in the civil service to party supporters, regardless of qualifications. It took the death of a president, James Garfield, in 1881 by a rejected office seeker in order for much need reform to be enacted.
Even then, the patron-client system has not disappeared; the spoils system was only replaced by the political machine we have now.
The Case Against a Presidency
Many like to argue that the president is necessary to maintain balance and separation of powers in our government. But there’s serious skepticism that that’s the case.
First of all, the president has no choice to bend to the will of congress if he wants to fulfill his mandate. Sitting congressmen enjoy a strong incumbent advantage; 97 percent of Representatives and 87 percent of Senators won their reelection in 2016. Presidents don’t enjoy the same amount of job security, as such they have a lot more to lose.
And to make matters worse; a super-majority of Americans are dissatisfied with congress as only 19% of voters approve of congress. And these low numbers are not surprising (except during times of national crisis), 2014 saw a record low of a 9 percent approval rating.
Instead of taking out their disenchantment against their congressmen, they will 9 out of 10 times re-elect the problem, and instead put most of the blame on the president for not fulfilling their promises even though they have no legislative power whatsoever to whip congress or introduce legislation. The presidency has been nothing but a scapegoat for congress.
Steps for Reform
We’ve identified what the problems are but we should remind ourselves of what the founders got right: A federal bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary. I’m not contending that we should adopt the unitary sovereign parliament of the UK (Technically it is bicameral but the upper house is nothing more than a rubber stamp and has been overridden by the house of commons with a simple majority whenever they have tried to reject legislation). The core principles of American democracy has always been federalism and constitutionalism, and this should not change.
What I propose instead (and get ready because this is a mouthful) a mixed member federal dual executive bicameral parliament. Let’s break it down:
Instead of our current single member, winner takes all system; the apportionment of legislators to the lower house of parliament would be selected by a Mixed Member Proportional system.
They way it works is that voters elect one candidate to represent their district but also vote on a separate for a party. District winners are given their seats first and thereafter, the party votes are added up and the parties are allocated seats proportional to their share of the vote. This gets rid of strategic voting as the people can now vote for people and parties they feel best represent them.
Here’s a video from New Zealand that helps visually describe the procedure:
In every government there is a head of state and head of government. The former is in charge of foreign affairs, head of the armed forces, and appoints major office holders. The head of state is supposed to be the person that is above politics, a statesmen; and is generally unelected or at least indirectly elected by the people. The head of government meanwhile is supposed to represent the commons. They are in charge of enforcing laws, managing the bureaucracy, setting the budget, and working with cabinet officials. Often times, such as in our case, the head of state is also the head of government.
Under an American Dual executive, the President of the Senate (a seat held by the Vice President of the United States) would be the head of state and the leader of the majority or coalition party of the Senate. Likewise the Speaker of the House (maybe rename it to “Chancellor”) would be the head of government.
By having a dual executive, the focus no longer revolves around a single person but everyone who compromises the legislature. And it is also makes voters more attentive to who they elect to congress or parliament as they are the ones who are responsible for selecting their nations leaders and setting the national agenda which leads us to…
The parliamentary part of the dual executive would make it so that the Chancellor and President are selected by the majority party or coalition of the House and Senate respectively.
Our current legislature somewhat reflects the jobs that heads of government and heads of states are in charge of carrying out. Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures so that there was a balance against the popular will of the people represented by the house of representatives who were elected directly (As an added bonus, we should repeal the 16th amendment as well to restore vertical federalism). The Senate also handles diplomacy and foreign affairs as they are the only ones who can declare war and approve treaties. The House on the other hand gets to privilege of having all bills of revenue originate with them and they take the lead in setting the budget.
In the end of course, both chambers of parliament will need to approve of a bill in order for it to become law but there would be no override vote by either.
I contend that this whole system would be a lot more appealing to small government conservatives and libertarians as well. As proponents of government that does less, this would not only enhance the power struggle between the Senate and the House but also causes friction within the various competing parties within the respective chambers of parliament causing a more divided government unable to pass much legislation. This plurality of interests would thus fulfill Madison’s’ goal of preventing elite factions from exploiting the government.