We Are Not Angels 

By: Daniel Ganopolsky  |  October 31, 2022

By Daniel Ganopolsky, Opinions Editor

The United States government generally responds slowly to change and is resistant to modernizing its systems. Terry Moe and William Howell, the authors of Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government, and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency, see this as a bad thing and view the Constitution as a “relic of the past.” This is not the case. The Constitution continues to provide an effective form of governance and we should, therefore, adhere to its tradition. The slow-moving, resistant aspect of our government is intentional, and that purpose has withstood the test of time. 

In their book, Moe and Howell argue for a fast-track system, similar to how the realm of foreign trade works. By granting more legislative power to the executive, bills will have an easier time passing Congress and Americans will be able to see the effects of their elected officials in a realistic time frame. This would generate two issues, both which the Founders foresaw. 

In the Federalist Papers, our Founders repeatedly pointed to Congress as the strongest branch of government because it represented the will of the people. Transferring the initial step of legislation from Congress to the Presidency will minimize the people’s ability to represent their opinions in the government. On the other hand, the President specifically represents the majority that elected them. There is no incentive for the President to pass legislation that favors the minority, or even compromise with them. The President’s most weighty incentive to pass legislation is his reelection campaign. If the executive has primacy, the legislature will be disincentivized to compromise with their counterparts or even optimize the legislation. The easy way out would be for them to simply vote according to party lines on what the President produces. This act would effectively strip the American populace from having a direct voice in their own government and would give the executive power the ability to create radical change.

The challenge of finding a balance between thoughtful, long-lasting legislation, and responding to the needs of the people in a timely manner is not new. Hamilton and Jefferson had this same argument when fighting over the creation of the national bank. In his interpretation of the Constitution, Hamilton justified the bank because it was “necessary” for the development of the country. Jefferson responded by saying that Hamilton’s interpretation of “necessary” was too liberal and would lead to constant “necessary” change. Under the guise of necessity, constant change would cause a never-ending state of political and legislative emergency. The President would be virtually unstoppable, passing any form of legislation, good or bad, he deems “necessary”. Our system was created so that the President does not have this ability. Legislation takes longer to be produced, but it also has more time to develop and be fine-tuned. 

The more cautious approach that can help fix holdouts in our political system is to amend the amendment process. The amendment process and its underlying requirements have largely been pragmatic, not philosophical, in nature. The Constitutional restrictions the Founders set for this process were solely based on the geographical and political conditions of their time. Today we have fifty states, not thirteen. We have national parties that stretch from sea to sea, and we have a polarized populace that refuses to work together. The Founders gave us an amendment process, yet today, it seems almost impossible to pass one. The reason for amendments has not changed; what has changed is the size of our country’s population and nationally organized political movements.

The value of stability, checks on power, and gradual change are essential to perpetuating a strong and healthy republic. Different components may have evolved, but the facts have stayed the same. As Madison expressed, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Therefore, the dictum of Justice Scalia holds true: “Gridlock is what our system is designed for.” Angels we are not and a rigid system is therefore what we need.