Government Isn't Working? Maybe the System Is Outdated The Answer Could Be Changing the Constitution, Not Changing the People

November 15, 1992|By JAMES L. HECHT

There is widespread discontent with the U.S. government. President Bush received only 38 percent of the vote, and many of those who voted for the president also were dissatisfied but felt that the other candidates would make things worse. That raises a question which, surprisingly, was not discussed during the election: Do we need to do more than just find the right president?

Ironically, months before he entered the race, Ross Perot identified what we need to do -- and then ignored the idea as a candidate. While being interviewed on "Good Morning America," Perot said that Germany and Japan benefited by operating under constitutions that were written after World War II -- while ours was written 200 years ago.

Excessive reverence for the Constitution has caused us to blame our political leaders instead of the framework in which they operate. If a machine in a factory almost always produced an unsatisfactory product even though some of the best workers in the factory had been assigned to it, the factory management would recognize that a satisfactory resolution would not come from changing people but would require either altering the machinery or how it was used.

The same holds for governing the United States.

When our Constitution was first adopted, it was the finest in the world. Despite the passage of two centuries, much of it should be maintained. But modifications in the way we govern ourselves are badly needed. The world has greatly changed, and the issues with which government must deal have become far more complex.

Our present Constitution has three serious weaknesses: our leaders are not accountable, we do not focus expertise in the writing of legislation, and we tilt toward parochial interests over national interests.

The lack of accountability stems from the division of authority between the legislative and executive branches. The result is that our political leaders make promises they cannot deliver because it is the only way they can get elected, but when they do not deliver they can blame someone else. Accountability requires a parliamentary system where one party has full responsibility when it comes to power.

Because of the complexity of the issues which government must address, good solutions require that a high level of expertise be included in the drafting of legislation. But legislators, mindful of the next election, need to impress the folks back home, and therefore strive to have their initiatives included in a wide variety of bills. The result is that legislators and their staffs are spread too thin to have the needed expertise.

To cite an example from an area with which I am familiar, the Russian aid legislation recently passed wisely includes funding for thousands of Russian managers to intern with small businesses in the United States, but provides for internships of six months -- much too long based on the experience of several small programs which have been privately funded. In government as in football, the results are better when the stars play as a team and specialize.

What is good for a state or a district may or may not be good for the country, but when local concerns conflict with national interests, members of Congress invariably side with local interests. If they have a power base, local interests may prevail even when detrimental to the rest of the nation. I still remember traveling on four-lane highway carrying virtually no traffic through a desert region -- wondering why there were numerous exit ramps which did not even lead to roads.

When the Germans adopted their constitution after World War II, they were aware of these weaknesses and other problems. Here are a few of the features of how they govern themselves:

* The chancellor, the head of the government, is elected by the Bundestag, the equivalent of our House of Representatives. Thus responsibility clearly rests with the ruling party.

* Only one-half the Bundestag is elected directly from the 331 districts into which the country is divided. The other 331 seats are awarded to each party proportional to the vote the party receives in the district elections. Party leaders do not run from districts; their election is insured by being high on the list of at-large representatives. Thus, while every district has a representative to look after its interests, the self-interests of those with the most political power is with legislation that benefits the nation as a whole, not a district.

* In order to prevent fragmentation of political responsibility resulting from countless splinter groups, at-large representation is awarded only to parties that receive at least 5 percent of the vote.

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