If it IS broke, fix it

Many U.S. institutions could use updating: elections, budgets, even the Constitution itself

February 23, 2010|By Andrew L. Yarrow

Many politicians and other Americans proudly and loudly carry the banner of "change." While important policy changes can occur, deep change in many governmental institutions and practices is about as alien to modern America as democracy is to Iran or North Korea.

One might respond that the U.S. is an open society and leader in global innovation. True. In science, technology and business, we are great at change. And we are a democracy where, in theory, new laws and policy initiatives can be enacted.

Yet, in all too many governmental institutions and practices, 2010 America has its feet firmly planted in the 19th Century. James Fallows, in The Atlantic, recently highlighted how little the structure of Congress and our two political parties have changed since the days of Henry Adams. Even the British House of Lords, after 675 years, was reformed 11 years ago. And in democracies from France and Germany to Japan and Israel, new parties emerge that change their nations' political landscapes and agendas, while we've been left with a D-and-R duopoly for 150 years.

Many ossified and obsolete public institutions and practices exist. Think of America's federal judiciary, state and local governments, public education, voting practices, budget process -- even its Constitution. We may cherish our traditions, but these institutions, as well as our Congress and parties, have become anachronistic. Truly changed institutions could serve the nation far better.

Term limits are sorely needed for the Supreme Court and the federal bench. With lifetime appointments, increasing longevity and the cynical search for the youngest appointees, Supreme Court justices since 1970 have served an average of a quarter-century. Unlike France and Germany, whose top justices are limited to 9-to-12-year terms, America's system has left us with many out-of-touch, unaccountable and often unfit jurists. Term limits would bring more fresh ideas and public accountability and less politicization of the high court and federal judiciary.

With 50 state governments, and similarly permanent municipal and county governments, America seems geographically set. However, major issues are often no longer so easily parceled into state, municipal/county and national silos. Many issues -- from land use to economic development -- defy political boundaries. Regional transportation and air-quality bodies link contiguous areas, but in most cases we haven't developed authorities with power to address issues that connect regions with shared interests.

It may be heresy to suggest greater centralization of public education. Yet, Democrats and Republicans calling for national standards recognize that we are one country, not a collection of 19th Century island communities. Beyond the huge inefficiencies of having 14,000 school districtsž our high geographical mobility, together with the need to draw talent to specialized nodes of enterprise, suggest that common student and teacher standards, curricula and funding levels are essential for American competitiveness.

Few public practices are as archaic as our Tuesday elections. Initiated in the agrarian days of the 1840s, this tradition owes its existence to farmers' need for a day of travel to vote that neither interfered with the Sunday Sabbath nor Wednesday market days. Today, midweek voting (without the day off) has been partially blamed for our relatively low voter turnout. In a good U.S. presidential election turnout barely exceeds 50 percent, but participation in countries with weekend elections routinely tops 80 percent.

Many things are wrong with U.S. government budgets, including the very process of developing single-year budgets based on cash-basis accounting. One-year budgets obscure and discourage thinking about long-term consequences of either present tax and spending decisions or future entitlement program costs. Many national governments use multi-year budgets and accrual accounting to recognize long-term costs of obligations when they are incurred.

Perhaps America's deepest institutional rigidity is exemplified by its Constitution itself. Yes, it is a remarkable model for the world and a tribute to the genius of the Founders. Of the 17 amendments ratified since the Bill of Rights, some have modified electoral practices, some have made law and some have been downright foolish. Given the cumbersome amendment process and the near-impossibility of changing, eliminating and codifying significant new rights, we are left with a brilliant document that, nonetheless, is extraordinarily difficulty to modify to reflect realities and thinking of the 21st, rather than 18th, century.

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