Rule of Law

Blame Norquist, not Founders

Everyone recognizes that Washington is not working the way it should. This has led some on the left, like Harold Meyerson, to question whether the Founders “screwed up.”

Many on the right, meanwhile, are promoting radical changes to our constitutional system. They talk about a version of a Balanced Budget Amendment, which would require a super-majority for most changes in financial policy. This would enshrine in our Constitution the right’s do-little government philosophy.

But the Constitution is not the problem. If we want to get Washington working again, we should listen to the Founders — not blame them for problems of our own making or change the ground rules of the system of government they bequeathed to us.

True, the Founders established a deliberative democracy, with a series of checks and balances designed to prevent the majority from running roughshod over the rights of political minorities. But these checks and balances have served our nation well.

The problem is not the democratic system bestowed upon us by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. The problem is the additional obstacles to action – the filibuster, hyper-partisanship, and special interest pledges – that our Founders would have found abhorrent.

Our Founders struck a delicate balance between the promotion of majority rule – the essential predicate for a democratic government of “We the People” – and the desire to protect minority rights and prevent the “tyranny of the majority.” The Constitution is designed to delay and temper majority rule while allowing a long-standing majority to get its way.

So, for example, the Constitution staggers the election of senators so that only one third of the Senate can change hands in any one election. As a result, it usually takes more than one election for any one party to gain a governing majority.

Modern politicians have placed layer after layer of lard on this deliberative system of government, ultimately producing the gridlock now plaguing Washington. The Senate Republicans now use the filibuster rule as a virtual requirement. Every piece of legislation must enjoy a super-majority of 60 votes in the Senate — meaning a determined minority can permanently stop the majority from getting its way.

President George Washington, in his farewell address to the nation, warned about just such “alterations” to our constitutional system. He said this would “impair the energy of the system.”

Washington also decried political parties. He passionately warned the nation against any effort “to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.”

While political parties were forming and solidifying even as Washington uttered these words, our modern politicians have enshrined hyper-partisanship through tricks like the “majority of the majority” rule, whereby the House speaker will only bring to the House floor legislation that has the support of the majority of his political party.

It is hard to imagine a more powerful example of the precise party-over-country danger Washington warned us about.

Washington may have had the likes of Grover Norquist in mind when he warned that some men “will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

Even anti-tax Republicans, like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep, Frank Wolf, have now decried the oversized role Norquist’s no new taxes pledge played in forcing the debt ceiling showdown and helping to prevent any solution that would have included new revenues. Coburn and others have warned their colleagues against putting Norquist’s “no–tax” pledge over their oath to support the Constitution and to serve “we the people” – not Norquist or any other special interests.

Washington today has serious problems, but we should not blame the city’s namesake for them. Rather, politicians of both parties should support a reform agenda designed to remove from our political system the modern procedural obstacles that have produced our current gridlock.

Maybe even in these divided political times we can all agree that when casting blame for what ails Washington, the fault it not with George Washington and our other Founding Fathers. It’s with the causes of our current gridlock – including figures like Norquist and his no-tax pledge.

Doug Kendall is the founder and president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a policy organization, law firm and action center to fulfill the progressive promise of our Constitution.