27 November 2010

The Promised Answer

I said I had the answer to gridlock in DC, but to explain it we need to go to Greece.


This here pile of stones is part of that ancient agora I mentioned a few days ago. Nothing to look at, and no great event took place here. There is a marker there, hard to read and in Greek, that says it was the location of the Boule, the group that essentially ran Athens. Five hundred men from each of the ten families or demes, each served a year and no one could serve more than twice.

What got my attention, though, was that this body could not pass laws on its own. Laws had to be approved by the larger assembly of citizens, call the ecclesia (from which we get the word ecclesiastical).

The ecclesia was too large to create laws, numbering 6000, but it had the authority to approve or deny laws proposed by the boule.

This is what got me thinking. Right now, our constitution expects the House and the Senate to create laws. Two centuries ago when the senate had thirty senators and the house around 100, this was a lot easier. Partly because life was slower and simpler, but equally because it is much easier for a small group to create things than a large group.

If a camel is a horse built by a committee, then a law written by the legislature is guaranteed to be a monstrosity. No matter who is in charge, which party, or what the purpose of the law is, everyone will have to be included in some way which means it will be swollen and complex.

I will also grant, as my conservative friends observe, that elaborate and complicated laws are unhealthy. The more clauses and sections there are the more bureaucrats are needed to enforce them, and the more lawyers to dispute them, and the more forms to be filed and so on.

What to do?

Change the rules. Require all laws to be drafted by the Senate, and approved by the House. Give the smaller group the job of writing laws, and the larger group the power to approve or disapprove the proposed law.

Other things would have to change, too, I know. Right now all spending bills must originate in the House. That's one that has to change, for sure. And maybe we should change terms to ten years and limit them two terms. My personal preference would be to bar lawyers from serving at all - talk about a conflict of interest - but you get the idea.

I think that asking those who are not subject to electoral tides every two years, who have to collaborate with others to get anything done, who are not chosen by districts that may be heavily industrial or agricultural or urban or rural, is better for creating laws that affect the whole nation. Conversely, giving the House the duty to approve or disapprove reminds the Senate that they are not in charge of the country but only to see that its rules are fair and accountable.

Yes, I know that changing the rules will not make people noble or smart. But I also know that the constitution was written for a nation vastly smaller and slower than the one we have. Preserving the purpose of the structure is more important than preserving its forms, despite what the Supremes say. Once, state houses chose senators. Nowhere does it allow for buying land like the Louisiana Purchase. But somehow these, and other changes have not destroyed it. Maybe the reason we have gridlock now is not because people are worse but because the rules we have cannot serve us as they once did or the purpose for which they were written.

Trying to operate modern America right now is like putting new wine in old bottles. If you don't get the reference, you can read about it here.

1 comment:

Ellington Ellis said...

Wonderful Piece!