Power to the President?

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Terry Moe on the Constitution,... Susan Athey on Machine Learnin...

USconstitution.jpg It seems somehow shocking to suggest that the American President be given more power today...Trust me...Having done so in the context of this week's EconTalk episode in different online media (here, for example), the reactions are strong. But that's just what this week's guest, Stanford political scientist Terry Moe, suggests. His reasons are interesting...and he suggests the sort of change he proposes might actually result in smaller, not to mention more efficient, government.

So let's hear what you have to say about Moe's proposal...Share your thoughts in the comments below, join us on twitter or Facebook, or strike up a conversation of your own! As always, we love to hear from you.

1. What is the mechanism by which Moe suggests more power be shifted to the President? How does he think this will increase governmental efficiency, and how convincing do you find his argument?

2. Moe suggests that defining what are pressing policy problems (and their respective solutions) is a part of the democratic process. What would Pierre Lemieux say about this? Can we really define the "we" effectively enough to accomplish this?

3. Part of Moe's argument is that the US Constitution is outdated, and that the crux of the problem lies with Congress. Roberts and Moe note how different the Senate, in particular, was at the time of the Founding. To what extent might a return to this model increase the check on legislative power which Moe blames for our current inefficient state?

4. Is Moe's proposal more attractive to "big government" or "small government" people, and why? What do you think would be the most effective way to "sell" such a proposal to the latter?

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Trent writes:

Replying to #3:

The 17th Amendment changed the Senate significantly by allowing for direct election of US Senators instead of having them be elected by state legislatures. This removed the states' main check on federal power and unleashed, among other things, the dreaded federal mandates on the states by the US Congress.

I think it's unclear whether returning to election of Senators by state legislatures would increase the check on legislative power. Mr. Moe railed against the special interests that, he said, halt progress in Congress via a small minority of congressmen or Senators. The latter presumably need fundraising money from the special interests to get reelected. But the need to amass huge campaign chests would disappear among Senators.

What would it be replaced by? They'd be beholden to state legislatures to get reelected, so their voting bias would likely tilt towards what those key state legislators favor. Yes, the latter could be captured by the same special interests, but you would think that would be more challenging to accomplish, given the decentralization of this power away from Washington DC. So while I could see strong opposition to a bill that mandates states pay for yet another federal program, there might be more agreement for bills that would give more power/independence to the states.

Capt. J Parker writes:

Prof. Moe's proposal is less about boosting the power of the president and more about boosting the power of the technocrat. If only we could get those wonderful government programs, designed by academic experts, written into law without all those self-interested congressmen mucking things up then life would be a dream. Guys like Jonathan Gruber could focus on what's important without having to worry about how to exploit the stupidity of the American voter or whatever.

What a fatal conceit it is to think that a more muscular president, surrounded by his experts, will actually know how to solve all those myriad persistent social problems Prof. Moe speaks of.

Here's my proposal: Let's beef up the reach of the 10th amendment. Give the President the power to retroactively veto any legislation that s/he deems not to be working. (The existing constitutional veto overrides would apply) Congress would then be prohibited from enacting any new legislation aimed at solving the same problem as the vetoed legislation for 15 years. Coming up with solutions would revert to the states or to the people. After 15 years congress could pick the best solution and make it national if they saw fit.

Pierre Lemieux writes:

Interesting conversation between Roberts and Moe, and interesting questions by Amy.

I haven’t read Moe’s book, but judging from the conversation, I would say that there are too many “we” and “national” in the formulation of both the problem and the solution. Even Russ, caught in this logic, nearly slipped into “we … as a nation” – although, at another point, he did question the political we.

It is difficult, while talking about collectives one is part of, to completely avoid we. But “we” should try!

It seems to me there is no way to have both a free society and a non-dysfunctional government when the latter is responsible for everything someone thinks is a problem. Except for pure public goods, we is only a portion of we. James Buchanan’s approach is very relevant here.

Who wants more power for the likes of Clinton and Trump? This being said, Moe made clear that the president would only gain the initiative of fast-track proposals, so perhaps my concern is exaggerated. However, a constitutional convention is clearly dangerous.

I would have liked more discussion of the distinction, raised by Russ, between a democracy and a republic.

Joseph Mann writes:

It's pretty clear to me: at this point the final's'in "United States" just needs to be removed because everything is a federal issue.

Colin writes:

I wonder if Moe's proposal to allow the president to propose legislation would actually resolve the issue of special interest provisions and parochial considerations making it into legislation.

As Moe notes, legislators want to satisfy their constituents, so they make their support of a law contingent on arbitrary add-ons. The theory seems to be if the president could propose the laws he/she could cut out all of this. However, the president would need to build support for his/her laws. What better way to do this then to send staffers to each congressman and ask them what extra provisions they want in the bill in exchange for their vote?

Ray Peters writes:

About the line item veto would it work for the President to say ... ?

If I had the line item veto, I'd veto these 80 items and sign the rest of the bill. I'm vetoing the bill as is. However, if Congress gets it back by close of business this Friday, I'll sign it with up to 40 of the line items I'd like to veto. If Congress gets it back by COB the following Friday, I'll sign it with up to 20. If Congress gets it back a week later, I'll sign it with up to 10.

In fact, to help Congress, I have White House staffers who like math and understand multi-vote theory. They will try to make it easy for Congress if all members of Congress participate by rank ordering which of the 80 items they want to keep in the bill.

john penfold writes:

Interesting idea, but assumes 1. that we need the Federal executive to fix social problems and it can't now because of special interests. 2. That the executive is not vulnerable to special interests and narrow populist pressures. 3. That fast track works because it eliminates congressional log rolling and special interest pleading. 4. That the problems reside in the constitution and its division of powers.
1. Social problems aren't fixed by top down executive power. Indeed our worst social problems have been caused by government. They solve themselves over time as real people work things out and adjust to each others interests unless of course the government empowers one or more groups and thereby stops adjustment. 2. and 3. He hasn't been involved perhaps in our trade negotiations. the hotels fill up with key committee chairmen,staffers and industry organizations so that the log rolling occurs sooner and in an evolving process. It is better than the alternative perhaps. The executive regulatory agencies are full of humans who like power and like to retire to good jobs and don't care about a current President's legacy. As they write the legislation they will be inundated by special interests, indeed they have to be because they can't know enough to write the legislation that is going to be layered on top of a half century of other legislation that frequently caused the problems in the first place. Lastly the problem of the dysfunctional interest riddled congress derive not from the constitution but from ignoring the constitution and being given permission to do so by Court decisions. Lastly I can't imagine anything more dangerous than a constitutional convention. We're going to match the first one? In this day and age? No, we do need Presidential leadership. He has to propose things simple and coherent enough that he can sell them over the Congress' head. Most if not all should involved peeling back Washington's power, not building it.

Nick Noyes writes:

Econ Talk owes its success almost entirely to Russ Roberts' unfailingly courteous and affable treatment of his guests and to his willingness to explore in good faith the many sides of issues. These admirable traits, unfortunately, at times result in listeners suffering folly of the sort Terry Moe offers here.

Moe's argument that the Constitution is due an overhaul is built on a rickety edifice of flawed premises and an apparenty shaky understanding of the history of the Constitutional Convention.

The latter is best epitomized by his embrace of the fashionable and false argument that the Constitution embodied a grand conspiracy of elites (Moe insists on calling them aristocrats) with identical interests, identical visions for the nation and (I presume) identical moral insufficiency. Moe asserts that the founding fathers organized a national government to serve their - the elites' - narrow, common interests. This is demonstrably false.

What we learn from outstanding historians such as Catherine Drinker Bowen (Miracle at Philadelphia) and Charles M. Mee (Genius of the People), is that the founding fathers were not, in fact, all "slave-owning wealthy planters." Benjamin Franklin was a printer, author and diplomat; Alexander Hamilton, a lawyer, was the quintessential "up by his own bootstraps" immigrant; John Sherman was a lawyer and a cobbler, and so on.

The delegates came together out of concern that a weak and bankrupt collection of States stood little chance of surviving regional rivalry, foreign encroachment and economic stagnation unless they formed into a more effective political union, and that despite their great differences, the States had no choice but to construct such a grand compromise.

In that compromise, the Fathers balanced the interests of the South versus North, the rural economy versus emerging urban ones, and foreign trade versus a nascent domestic manufacturing industry, among many others. (To our great and tragic cost, they deferred the question of slavery to another generation) Overlaying all such compromises was that which defined the extent to which States would cede sovereignty to an as yet ill-defined national government. Contrary to Moe's assertions, the delegates to the Constitution did not enjoy the unanimous concurrence of fellow delegates on most issues; and to reach agreement they in many cases defied the interests of the elites in their States and risked opprobrium (and worse) upon their return home.

Moe's weakest premise underlies his lament that the Constitution is inherently unsuited to solving "the nation's problems", and that it instead incentivizes the legislature to serve what he and others today call special interests. The belief that the national polity consists of special, selfish interests on the one hand, and general, enlightened interests on the other, and that a properly functioning government would unerringly favor the latter over the former belies reality and reason.

There was not then, as there is not now, such a thing as an objectively agreed "general" interest, separate from "special" interest. By example, I, and ordinary middle class 50-something man, favor government policies like low taxes and minimal redistribution of wealth in order to maximize the economic opportunities available to my children as they pursue their human potential. An equally unremarkable thirty-two year old single mother from the Chicago inner city working two jobs for hourly wages favors government policies such as minimum wage increases and subsidized housing to ease her considerable economic burden. Neither of us is a corporation or lobbying group or PAC; we're not "special" interests. But apart from sharing our ordinariness, we want diametrically opposed things from government. She's not bad or craven for wanting what she wants, and neither am I. We, and millions of our fellow citizens, with our varying political preferences put the lie to the mythical "general" interest that folks like Moe consistently invoke to justify ever more power and resources for government or, in this case, diminishing the powers of the legislative branch vis a vis those of the President.

The Founding Fathers set for us in the Constitution the seminal example that the object of politics is negotiated compromise between inherently incompatible, if not contradictory, interests. "Special interests" are the only kind of interests that exist, in other words.

In sum, Terry Moe accurately, if unintentionally, articulates the many tropes of modern American liberals that seem to render the dismantling of our institutions so attractive to them: that the purpose of politics is to find the "true way" that benefits us all equally, that political trade-offs are a cynical aberration to the proper functioning of government, that government exists to dispel the ills that have ailed humanity since the dawn of time and to direct our destiny, and that institutions like the Constitution that obstruct the great project of government must be altered or brushed aside.
Not exactly the stuff of Economics and Freedom.

[comment edited by commenter request--Econlib Ed.]

Tom E writes:

I want to reinforce John Penfold's comments (above) concerning fatal flaws in Prof Moe's logic, especially these two:

"2. That the executive is not vulnerable to special interests and narrow populist pressures. 3. That fast track works because it eliminates congressional log rolling and special interest pleading."

We can go back to monarchies (the bete noire of the Founding Fathers) to see this at work. Nobles and courtiers of all types lobbied the monarch and his advisors to get special deals. The same thing happens today in the executive branch. Only this change would dramatically escalate the influence of both hidebound, vested bureaucracies and lobbyists who would merely shift their focus. The court, as it were, would achieve grotesque dimensions and the Founding Fathers would be spinning so rapidly in their graves that the heat signature would be picked up by satellites.

Whereas Congress operates in its self-interest, they are elected and thus accountable. The executive branch bureaucracy is not. Unlike what utopians like Moe and Thomas Paine believe, there is no such thing as "objective" governance--smart people who would agree on rational terms about what should be done. Even totalitarians must deal transactionally with self-interested parties. The Founding Fathers knew that and preferred a relatively more accountable mess.

Not to be absolutist, there's a case to be made for fast-track in areas such as national defense, but Moe instead makes the case that domestic issues could be fixed through fast-tracking. John Penfold illuminates Moe's primary logical flaw, and I want to thank him for doing that.

Nico Swansson writes:

Interesting topic and a good conversation that Robert and Moe have. It is quite strange how one can change and on the way manipulate a constitution. These small changes transfers the power from the people to the government. How they done it should be a new chapter in Machiavelli - The Prince that all should read (hopefully I "read again").

Thank you for a great site with great content!

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