Ventura's proposal lacks constitutional wisdom

November 04, 1999|By George F. Will

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Because governing America in peace and prosperity seems like child's play, the children -- Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan and others -- have come out to play, using the Reform Party as their sandbox. But Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, that party's foremost contribution to American governance, is doing something serious.

He is campaigning to get the legislature to submit to referendum a constitutional amendment to establish a unicameral legislature. This is not a good idea, but it is a better idea than most of Mr. Buchanan's and is one more idea than Mr. Trump has revealed.

Streamlining government

Mr. Ventura brings pugnacious populism to the task of getting Minnesota's political class to cooperate in reducing the number of electoral offices. He says that eliminating one legislative chamber would "streamline" government, making it more transparent and less of a "maze" of choke points.

Unicameralism would make government more "efficient" and intelligible to average citizens, would "re-connect" them to government and "re-engage" them in policy-making by closing the "gap" between government and the people.

All that is largely correct. Which is why unicameralism is a mistake.

The word "streamline" is a product of 19th-century enthusiasm for the engineering values and mighty machinery of industrialism. It is jarring when applied to what our 18th-century Founders created -- limited government.

Granted, unicameralism was in use in the young Republic, and bicameralism became orthodox for states in mimicry of the national legislature, which was the result of the compromise between large and small states that made the Constitution possible.

Granted, the Framers crafted the Constitution to create a national government more effective than was possible under the Articles of Confederation.

But efficiency did not trump all other values. It ranked below liberty and deliberative democracy.

The political catechism of the Madisonian moment was approximately this:

What is the worst outcome of politics? Tyranny. To what form of tyranny are democracies prey? Tyranny of the majority. Solution? Minimize the likelihood of durable oppressive majorities by maximizing the number of minorities -- factions -- that will coalesce only into unstable, transitory majorities.

Hence the revolution James Madison wrought in democratic theory: Democracy, far from requiring a small, homogeneous, faction-free society, will flourish in an "extensive" society with a saving multiplicity of factions.

Hence government's first duty (Federalist 10) is to protect the seedbed of factions, the "different and unequal faculties of acquiring property."

Furthermore, the Constitution's separation of powers created a government of checks and balances, replete with blocking mechanisms, including super majorities, vetoes, veto overrides, judicial review (it turns out) and, not least important, bicameralism.

In 1934, Nebraska's U.S. Sen. George Norris, a Republican with a streak of prairie radicalism, proposed that Nebraska become, which it did in 1937, the only state with a unicameral legislature.

He emphasized, as Mr. Ventura does, the supposedly baneful influence of conference committees that reconcile differences between bills passed by a bicameral legislature's two houses. In conference committees, critics charge, secrecy prevails and lobbyists flourish.

But a smaller, one-house legislature may be more malleable for lobbyists. Besides, if Mr. Ventura's complaint is valid -- that most lobbyists are paid to stop legislation, and that is easier under bicameralism -- his complaint actually is a compliment to bicameralism, which serves limited government.

Mr. Ventura believes that bicameralism encourages "posturing," whereby bad bills are passed to please this or that constituency, with legislators knowing that the bills will die in the other chamber or be fixed in conference committee.

But the alternative to bicameralism and posturing might be unicameralism that inadequately filters bad legislation.

Mr. Ventura fondly remembers his days as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., when City Council meetings were televised on a local cable channel and "in the dead of winter the door would fly open and a red-faced citizen would walk in," hot to take issue with what the council was doing.

Founders' intent

Nevertheless, the nation's Founders built constitutional distance between government and the governed because the essence of deliberative democracy is representation: The people do not decide issues, they decide who will decide.

Mr. Ventura says unicameralism would make government both "responsive and limited." However, that is an unlikely combination of attributes.

When Americans want something from government, and want it intensely and protractedly, they usually get it. When they don't, they probably shouldn't. But nowadays government, a seismograph trembling to tiny tremors of appetites, is "responsive" to a fault.

Bicameralism is, as Mr. Ventura says, conducive to gridlock. But there are 6 billion people on this planet and about 5.7 billion of them would be better off if they lived under governments more susceptible to gridlock. Gridlock is not an American problem, it is an American achievement.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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