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In Defense of the Electoral College

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Every four years there are rumblings about the Electoral College (EC) and calls to abolish it. Since doing so requires a Constitutional amendment the calls usually don’t get very far; even in the best of times there always seem to be bigger fish to fry. Sometimes, though, the vagaries of the system are anything but trivial, as we were all reminded in 2000. The immediate and understandable reaction on the left was, why are we still stuck with this thing when it just put someone who lost the popular vote in the White House? It seemed to exist only to block the will of the people. But in 2004 a popular and electoral win led the president to characterize it not just as the popular preference for president, but an accountability moment that granted him political capital, which he in turn defined as comprehensive support for everything he wanted to do. Dana Nelson describes this understanding of the presidency on page 177 of "Bad For Democracy", citing Barney Frank’s use of the political science term plebiscitary democracy: a system "wherein a leader is elected but once elected has almost all of the power."

Such a formulation is nothing less than a radical attempt to seize power from the citizenry (and can only be done if we acquiesce). We should expect, and be expected, to do more than cast a quadrennial ballot for president. We should be talking, persuading, agitating and advocating between elections for or against those policies that matter most to us. For better or worse Congress is the object of these efforts. Think about the big issues of the last few years – Social Security privatization, immigration reform, various FISA changes, the bailout – and they all received passionate response and intense lobbying efforts by Americans towards their Representatives and Senators. Even though not all succeeded, the fact is that is where people directed their energies.

Since that is where we have the best chance of affecting policy, transferring some authority there could easily make the government more responsive. For example, instead of having EC electors selected in a separate process just make everyone in Congress one (and let D.C. continue to use its current process to get its three). There are some noteworthy benefits to doing this. First, it would take away some power of the executive branch – which throughout our history has almost exclusively expanded. A vote by Congress for the president would make it much more difficult to assert an accountability moment, mandate, or otherwise claim near-total freedom of action. Second, the president would owe something to Congress. Heaven knows the last eight years in Congress have been an ongoing, catastrophic failure of courage in the face of presidential bullying. While no rules, legislation or other mechanisms can compel anyone to stand up to such tactics it certainly might help to stack the deck a little. If the "accountability moment" had been with Congress and not voters we might have seen much different behavior on both sides.

It also might mitigate one of the structural weaknesses in our theoretical model of checks and balances: The tendency of officials’ parochial interests to trump institutional concerns. A nearly perfect example of that is on display at the very moment. We have just found out that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have spent more money on the financial system in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did in World War II. How exactly the money is being spent and who in particular has benefited is basically a complete mystery. Bloomberg News – not, remember, a branch of the federal government – has filed a lawsuit to obtain details on where it has gone. Congress ought to be asking the same questions and could much more easily find out. But instead we have politicians squabbling about relatively small amounts based on how much their constituents depend on the domestic auto industry. The much larger executive overreach passes unnoticed.

It is important to not fly from crisis to crisis and to not always look for solutions to future problems by generalizing from the most recent one. But those of us on the left are in a position to argue from principle (and with great credibility) about scaling back the scope of the presidency now that a Democrat is about to enter the White House. In the last week Libby Spencer has exhorted her readers by post and in comments to not focus too much on Barack Obama. Instead we should focus on what we can do, and what we can convince or representatives in Congress to do. Such an ongoing and hands-on commitment might be more effective – and empowering – if the presidency receded somewhat from its overwhelming primacy in our political life.

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