Barnett: Could constitutional change unlock gridlock?

October 19, 2013 

As gridlock gripped the U.S. Congress, the people of Ireland went to the polls to vote on a proposal many might favor here: Abolish the Senate.

The upper chamber of the Irish Parliament narrowly survived, but its brush with extinction raised the question in some minds of whether the United States also ought to be thinking of bold and sweeping changes in the way it’s governed. When a divided Congress causes the government to shut down for weeks and global economic chaos looms, something in the gears of democracy needs to be fixed.

Maybe the problem isn’t really the tea party after all, but the firebrands who were alive during the real Boston Tea Party. Maybe we shouldn’t be blaming John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, but rather James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin.

I mean, Wyoming gets the same number of senators as California? Why do political operators in state capitals get to draw the U.S. congressional districts? And, for the 40th time, does the Electoral College do anything other than let the future turn on Florida chads or how Ohioans feel about gay marriage?

The pointless and costly standoff brought on by tea party zealots is cause to reconsider ideas hatched beneath tri-cornered hats. Let’s have another constitutional convention or at least float a few amendments to make democracy work better in 21st century America.

I played my fife and drum of exasperation and resolve for a pair of Triangle professors to see if they thought it’s time to tinker with what’s supposed to be a living document. The first was Michael J. Gerhardt, an expert on constitutional law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The other was David W. Rohde, a Duke political scientist who every two years since 1980 has co-authored books assessing presidential and mid-term elections.

Both wise men said my ideas to change the Constitution were as off-kilter as anything heard at a Sarah Palin rally. The fault, they said, wasn’t in our Constitution, but in our politics.

A desire to change the structure of Congress is a natural response to political frustration, Gerhardt said. People also wanted to abolish the Electoral College after George Bush won the presidency in 2000 despite losing the popular vote. But he said the constitutional structure didn’t fail this time. The Founding Fathers wanted the Senate to counter the strong feelings of the populist House and that’s exactly what happened.

“The resolution of the impasse may have vindicated some of their beliefs,” he said. “Senators did seem to find common ground in ways House members were unable to.”

But he does think the roots of the gridlock lie partially in gerrymandered congressional districts, a result of the Constitution leaving the line drawing to the states. “It’s allowed states pretty wide discretion and that’s a problem,” he said.

The problem has been compounded by the Supreme Court’s silence on the matter. The court has ruled against drawing district lines to disadvantage racial groups, but it has not objected to lines drawn to enhance a political party’s advantage. Thus, in North Carolina we’ve had Republican-led redistricting that has turned the state’s Congressional delegation from 7-6 Democratic in 2010 to 9-4 Republican in 2012.

Gerhardt said the most telling link between what the Founding Fathers did wrong and what today’s Congress can’t get right isn’t an issue of design, but a lack of will to take on the toughest issues of their time. Those who wrote the Constitution, he said, “had some big issues like slavery, and you can see how that worked out. They kicked that can down the road and it ended in civil war. What we are learning is we can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

Rohde found the idea of constitutional change amusing. In today’s political climate we can’t agree on changing the debt ceiling, he said, do you think we’re going to agree on changing the Constitution?

And even if we could, should we want to? Rohde said such changes might include doing away with the filibuster, the presidential veto and making Congress one house.

“All that would make it much easier to pass laws, but it would have other impacts that people might not find so attractive,” he said.

Rohde attributes the current impasse to three factors. “When we couple divided government with polarized parties with our constitutional structure we get what we’ve got now,” he said.

And what we’ve got, he said, we are likely to have for a long time. For Rohde, the cause of gridlock is that the nation that now has less in common politically. In the 1950s and 1960s, he said, the two major parties had a wide spectrum within each and people from opposing parties could find partners on the other side. That’s gone now and with it has gone collaboration in government.

The only hope for a productive Congress, he said, is during those periods when one party controls both chambers and the presidency. But that surge of lawmaking, he said, inevitably triggers a backlash and another round of divided and paralyzed government. “What we have experienced is what we have to look forward to for a long time,” he said. “A lot of people regard that as a counsel of despair, but I can’t see anything that’s going to make a significant difference.”

So, absent another Miracle in Philadelphia, it looks like we’ll be stuck between the checks and balances for a while. But enjoy a break for the rest of the year. The next debt ceiling hike debate won’t come up again until January.


Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or

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