An article in the Alantic Monthly by Garrett Epps entitled “The Founders Great Mistake” offers some observations on weaknesses in the US constitution regarding the Presidency.  In particular –

The most dangerous presidential malfunction might be called the “runaway presidency.” The Framers were fearful of making the president too dependent on Congress; short of impeachment—the atomic bomb of domestic politics—there are no means by which a president can be reined in politically during his term. Taking advantage of this deficiency, runaway presidents have at times committed the country to courses of action that the voters never approved—or ones they even rejected.

Epps offers several examples of runaway presidency. The example of Andrew Johnson is particularly good-

Andrew Johnson was the next unelected runaway. Politically, he had been an afterthought. But after Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson adopted a pro-Southern Reconstruction policy. He treated the party that had nominated him with such scorn that many contemporaries came to believe he was preparing to use the Army to break up Congress by force. After Johnson rebuffed any attempt at compromise, the Republican House impeached him, but the Senate, by one vote, refused to remove him from office. His obduracy crippled Reconstruction; in fact, we still haven’t fully recovered from that crisis.

Epps, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, points out the origin of the mysterious electoral college-

The system that the Framers developed for electing the president was, unfortunately, as flawed as their design of the office itself. When Madison opened discussion on presidential election in Philadelphia, he opined that “the people at large” were the “fittest” electorate. But he immediately conceded that popular election would hurt the South, which had many slaves and few voters relative to the North. To get around this “difficulty,” he proposed using state electors. Electoral-vote strength was based on a state’s total population, not on its number of voters—and the South received representation for three-fifths of its slaves both in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College.

The electoral college was merely a scheme to manipulate the weighting of ballots in states with a low fraction of voters among the population. In other words, it was a “duct tape and baling wire fix” to accomodate the slave states embarrassingly low fraction of voting adults. This antebellum artifact should be abandoned in favor of simple vote counting.

The citizens of the USA need to have a better mechanism with which to fire a President who is crooked or incompetent. The provision for impeachment carries a high threshold for activation. A president must engage in some kind of serious malfeasance to provoke the congress to vote for impeachment. But the application of this provision has been very nonlinear. Clinton was impeached for lying about consensual sex. Bush arguably lied or at least tolerated falsehoods leading to the invasion of Iraq and the resulting civil war with tens of thousands of deaths. Depending on the congress for an even application of its powers is a sketchy proposition.

The framers of the constitution did not anticipate the situation where an incompetent president might be elected by “low-information voters”.  A government that has usurped the consensus of the electorate and is allowed to remain in play because of a fixed period of tenure is a government that serves only itself.  This is wrong and we should not stand for it.

Advertisements