Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rewriting the Constitution, Part 3: The Chief Executive

Our manner of picking a president suffers from all the problems associated with any elective office when the electorate is so enormous: the cost of being heard is incalculable, and only those who are extremely rich, or who can raise funds in the tens of millions of dollars, have any chance of even being considered. During campaigns there is as much fundraising as campaigning. And if the candidate is elected to office, it sometimes seems as if the officeholder spends as much time fundraising as governing. And the strange thing about all this is that we accept it as normal, that our candidates and presidents, who themselves are invariably wealthy, are nevertheless continually begging for money, and incurring the occult obligations that go with that.

So I would propose a radical reform to eliminate at least some of that. It is, I know, a new approach. But I even came up with a name for the body that would choose the president. I call it "the electoral college."

OK, I know, that's who now elects the president, and who is invariably the subject, every four years, of cries that the electoral college must be abolished, insofar as it can thwart the general will, as it did most recently in 2000. But over the years--actually, almost from the beginning--the electoral college has become (with a few exceptions) simply a conduit for tallying winner-take-all elections, state by state.

It is instructive to contrast this with what the Founders thought they were doing in setting up the electoral college in the first place:

"It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.

"It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations."

This is Hamilton, from Federalist No. 68. The idea is that the people choose a body for the special purpose of choosing a president. That the electoral college never became a deliberative body is a consequence of the constitution's prohibition of its actually meeting; the electors now meet in their states, separately, and now only pass on, imperfectly, the results of the popular vote.

It seems to me that there is much to say about picking a president with a special elective assembly. For starters, the electors would not be constrained to pick only those who are running for office. Arguably, on only one occasion, did the electoral college function as intended by the founders: when it picked the reluctant George Washington for president.The electors would themselves be chosen in local elections. They themselves would be ineligible for the office. Once chosen they would be free to consider, not only the obvious candidates, those who put themselves forward, but other men and women of achievement, in government, business, education, the military, law, medicine--wherever--who might show promise. They could interview them, investigate them, hold hearings--in short, do whatever anyone else would do in considering anyone for an important position. And added advantage would be the consequence for party affiliation: it would become irrelevant.

Since the leadership of the Senate is in the hands of a former president, the question comes to mind of whether a vice-president is really needed. On reflection I think the office is a useful one--given the president's importance, it would be good to have someone in the wings in the event of a death, resignation, or removal. But the vice-president would be chosen in the same manner as the president, by the free selection of the electoral college. He would in no sense be a "running mate." Furthermore, he would not necessarily complete any unexpired term. On his taking office the first act of the vice-president should be to call for the election of a new electoral college, to choose a new president; he or she would merely be a caretaker until a new president was chosen. The electoral college could, of course, choose the vice-president for president. But it would be unconstrained in that choice.

One of the weaknesses of our current system is that there is no provision for removal of a president for incompetence or for political reasons. Currently only "high crimes and misdemeanors" will do it. But, as recent experience has surely suggested, there is a need in the American government for some equivalent of the "vote of no confidence" in the Congress. I would recommend that if two-thirds of each house votes for the removal of the president, removal should follow, and a new electoral college be chosen to pick a new president.

A president so removed would still have the right to serve in the Senate (as opposed to one convicted of crimes under the current impeachment procedure, which should continue in effect, unchanged). The current four years terms, with a possibility of one re-election, seem to strike a good balance between the need to have sufficient time to enact a president's plans and the need to limit the exercise of power by a single individual.

On a minor note, I would also get rid of that provision barring the foreign-born from the presidency. I am no great fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I don't see why his foreign birth should disqualify him for office. Surely a reasonable terms of citizenship beforehand--twenty years, perhaps--should suffice. I wonder if our current provision had something to do with lingering resentment over the accession of the Hanoverians to the English monarchy.

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