Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Constitutional Collapse---or Decadence?

Reflecting on Matt Yglesias's warning of an impending constitutional crisis, Dylan Matthews and Ross Douthat both doubt that the U.S. will suffer a presidential coup.  But they each offer their own thoughts about increasing executive power.

Matthews, who is not a fan of the American constitutional system as it currently stands, believes that presidents will increasingly take more power for themselves.
The best-case scenario is that we wind up with an elective dictator but retain peaceful transitions of power. This is where I'd place my bet. Pure parliamentary systems, especially unicameral ones, give high levels of power to the prime minister and his cabinet, and manage to have peaceful transitions nonetheless. The same is true in Brazil, where the presidency is considerably more powerful than it is in the US.
Douthat is a bit more hopeful about the viability of the U.S. constitutional system, but he also fears that both parties in Congress will essentially acquiesce to the system of executive supremacy.  He outlines a case of what he terms "constitutional decadence":
Which is not to say that external events — terror, war, economic crisis — might not intervene and push the system closer to the breaking point. But we’ve had a number of stress tests over the last ten years, and for all the paranoia and political dysfunction they’ve produced, both our leaders and the voting public have tended to circle back to something like the status quo. That status quo may be flawed, sclerotic and corrupt (ahem, Hillary), but the country as a whole seems invested in muddling along with our system in a way that, say, Germans in the Weimar era or Americans during the antebellum crises ultimately were not. So even though what Yglesias is describing is a problem, and potentially a big one, it could easily give us an extended period of what you might call constitutional decadence, rather than ending soon in crisis or collapse.
Instructive is the fact that figures on both the left and the right agree that a kind of evolving executive powergrab is taking place.  Every week, it seems as though the Obama administration is proclaiming a new issue that can be addressed through executive action, whether it is gun control, tax increases, or whatever other policy aim the president has at the moment.  As the courts consider ruling on some of the president's executive actions, they are surely paying attention to this broader structural context.

UPDATE: Leon Wolf raises his own concerns about threats to constitutional norms:
The new reality in America is this – unless Congress is someday composed of two-thirds members of the opposite party of the President (which is an increasingly remote possibility in our increasingly polarized country), the President can from now on do whatever he wants. Only the Supreme Court remains with the power and the will to stop him, and only then when it feels like it or is ideologically opposed to what he has done. The most democratically responsive branch of the Federal Government now exists for the almost exclusive purpose of determining who receives the largest share of the taxpayer money with which the taxpayers are to be bribed for their re-election. Before long the executive branch will be likewise emboldened to act in regular defiance of the judiciary, as it currently is of Congress, and who will stop it then?

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