The American system of checks and balances works best when inaction is not a bad thing, in other words, when the basic situation is not changing too quickly. All the committees, all the branches of government, the filibusters, the courts, and the rest prevent us from going off half cocked. When real emergencies arise, however, the bias towards stasis built into the Constitution hurts us. In fact, our system is so ill suited to dealing with new conditions that it even fails to deal with slowly developing trends. Inequality has been increasing for decades now, for example; but our tax laws and spending practices have, if anything, exacerbated what is now a highly toxic situation; and it’s hard to imagine the Republican party permitting measures that would seriously curb, let alone reverse, the relentless growth of privilege. The current Constitution gives even a relatively small minority the power of veto.
There is another problem with the design of our government. One would like to believe that the struggle between interests and points of view would lead to a compromise that is better than the original proposals of either side. At this point, however, it requires so drastic an effort to do anything whatsoever that compromises are likely to be worse than anything either side would have done had it the sole power to chose. When the economy needs stimulus, for example, what we get is likely to be heavily loaded with tax cuts because the Conservatives are determined to prevent government spending unless it is for weapons or subsidies to their wealth supporters. Unfortunately, we not only need stimulus, we badly need investments in infrastructure and schools and other things and we also need to preserve adequate sources of revenues for the legitimate functions of government. The cumulative effect of forty years of compromise, of dealing with everything by tax cuts has left us with fewer options and a dilapidated, downright shoddy nation. Similarly, we obviously have needed to renovate our health care system for a long time now, not only because health care costs will break the budget in the long run but because the huge inefficiency of our current system is making us less and less competitive with every other industrialized country. The intransigence of the Republicans makes a straightforward solution to this problem impossible. Ergo we find ourselves with the mare’s nest of Obamacare, a make-do that is not only unnecessarily complex and incomplete but has been loaded with absurd provisions that the other side insisted upon in the name of a compromise, though none of them voted for the final bill. Their whole point was always to sabotage the effort.
Another example: Out here in California, a desperate struggle is under way to prevent the building of a high-speed rail line between the Bay area and L.A. It’s not that you can’t come up with arguments against the line, though I personally think that such a project is worth it on the merits. I don’t doubt that there are many other transportation projects that are more important to undertake. In an era of rising gas prices, for example, the sorry state of transportation inside cities is truly deplorable. The critics of high-speed rail aren’t about to trade it in for better buses for politically irrelevant people, however. Like Polish noblemen, they just want to say no. If we’re going to do anything, it has to be something spectacular like bullet trains. Nothing incremental can move the seized-up machinery of state government. As with the country as a whole, the options seem to be permanent constipation or explosive diarrhea.