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An idea to end gridlock: dissolve Congress

The current expectation for 2015 is that the Republicans will hold onto a substantial House majority and the Senate will settle somewhere near 50-50.

Writing for the current Harper’s, French historian Jean-Philippe Immarigeon offers a bold suggestion for U.S. constitutional reform that’s captured in a deliberately provocative essay title: “Dissolve Congress.”

Unlike some frustrated Americans, he doesn’t imagine the members of the U.S. Congress being dropped en masse into a boiling cauldron of acid. By “dissolve,” he means that the United States should do what most democracies around the world do when their governments are deadlocked: adjourn the current session and call an election based on the issues that are causing the gridlock. Of course, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t allow for such a thing, but Immarigeon thinks it would be good if it did.

“There is nothing more tiresome to an American than to be lectured by a Frenchman,” Immarigeon acknowledges with good humor (and considerable accuracy). But he notes that this feature is common to most democracies around the world. It doesn’t always produce the desired result, which presumably is a period of constructive action (or perhaps constructive inaction, if that is what the electorate has endorsed) in the government.

It’s widely assumed that nothing very substantial will happen in 2014, while we wait for an election that in all likelihood won’t settle anything anyway.

The current expectation for 2015 (pending the next this-changes-everything moment, like the government shutdown, or like the Obamacare rollout snafu, which like those previous this-changes-everything moments won’t change everything) is that the Republicans will hold onto a substantial House majority, the Senate will settle somewhere near 50-50, and Obama — this is not speculation — will remain in the Oval Office through mid-January of 2017. In other words, the situation will remain high in gridlock potential.

Immarigeon didn’t even go into that. He doesn’t address the fact our system creates multiple power centers, all chosen on different schedules and different bases. He merely thinks it would be a good idea to let the electorate choose a new Congress with fresh democratically-produced instructions on how to proceed.

(By the way, I can’t link to his piece because Harper’s is subscriber-only for much of its content. Here’s the excerpt that’s available to all.)

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Jon Lord on 01/23/2014 - 08:41 am.

    We won’t do that

    Obviously. But we should stop all outside interests from monetarily influencing our elections and political decisions. Or try stop it anyway. Corruption will always find a way, especially if there is a big payoff in it. Money is the root of all political imperfections. It’s where, or why, the different power centers are born. This is the worst political situation this country has gone through since the ‘tail-gunner’ Joe debacle. Don’t know who ‘tail-gunner’ Joe was? We should also work on improving our educational system nationally. It’s imperative in a true democracy. Granted, we’re not a true democracy.

  2. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 01/23/2014 - 09:10 am.

    Dissolving Congress

    For a decade or so I’ve advocated, partly in jest to anyone at the table who will listen, that whenever Congress does not enact a budget by the Oct. 1 deadline, all seats be declared vacant and an election held in November to fill the seats. So far no one has offered to buy me a beer for this wonderful idea.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/23/2014 - 09:16 am.

    Someone should tell him

    that we don’t have a parliamentary system.
    The Founders were familiar with that, and didn’t want it.
    The separation of powers means that we don’t have a single government entity that can be dissolved.
    We have set a higher bar: individual members of Congress can be recalled; the President can be impeached.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/23/2014 - 09:20 am.


    What is it about our constitution that is so distasteful to you?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 01/23/2014 - 08:01 pm.

      Not sure

      how Mr. Black putting forth an essay for discussion equates to finding distaste with the constitution.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/23/2014 - 10:50 am.

    It goes further

    As a Harper’s subscriber, I don’t think I’m violating any copyright provisions by saying that Mr. Immarigeon’s proposals go further than what Eric’s short piece can provide. For one thing, he proposes a full-blown constitutional convention – something that I believe Eric has mentioned in the past – with the intention of converting our current dysfunctional system to a different system (with its own set of problems).

    As I get older, I find suggestions like Ken Wedding’s more and more attractive, and it would, of course, solve most of our current governmental problems with dysfunction in Washington. Alas, I think it unlikely to be adopted.

    I don’t often disagree with Paul Brandon, but will do so in this instance. Most – not all, perhaps, but most – of the world’s democracies were formed *after* the U.S. adopted our revered constitution. That being the case, they looked at the American model and rejected it as far too inefficient, not to mention resistant (on purpose) to the will of the public. That’s why there are no major democracies around the world that follow the American model. In truth, I don’t know of any, of whatever size or influence.

    They, not us, set “…a higher bar” in that they wanted their respective governments to genuinely work. A parliamentary system overcomes most of what’s wrong with our system. In a few instances, it substitutes one problem for another – too frequent changes, for example, make it just as difficult to get something done at the national level as the current gridlock – and yes, there’s always the possibility of “mob rule” if we assume the public to be so gullible that they can’t be trusted with the sort of direct influence on public policy that a parliamentary system provides, but if we can’t trust the people who are being governed, what’s all that rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution about, then?

    I do think Paul is correct in saying that we don’t have a single government entity that can be dissolved. He’s correct, that is, if we keep the current framework. Immarigeon argues in his Harper’s article that it’s the current framework that’s the problem. I’m not terribly enthused about the idea of a constitutional convention, mostly because we’ve already loaded the dice in favor of plutocrats and corporations, and the prospect of a convention dominated by People Of Money is one I don’t think especially far-fetched. I’m also just as appalled by the possibility of people like Michele Bachmann or Ron Emmer having an influence on how the national government will work as some of our “conservative” commenters would be about giving Keith Ellison that same sort of influence.

    While I wouldn’t presume to speak for Eric, my own answer to Mr. Gotzman is this: “It doesn’t work very well in the modern world.”

    The founders, being People Of Money themselves, for the most part, created a document of and by the Enlightenment era of which they were a part. For the most part, they did a fine job, and their creation has functioned adequately for more than 2 centuries, but it wasn’t perfect to begin with, and was created by a group of propertied males who couldn’t envision women being legally equal to men, organized political parties, a nation without slavery, modern media and its influence, multinational corporations, or – to be just a little bit snarky – California.

    The times, the society, and the world itself have changed, and a slavish devotion to a document that demonstrably leaves something to be desired in terms of government responsiveness doesn’t serve the public interest. I have plenty of qualms about trying to figure out a new system, and frankly, I don’t expect to live long enough to see an effort in that direction brought to fruition, but I don’t mind examining the obvious problems with what we have now.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/23/2014 - 11:04 am.

      Thanks, Ray

      And as usual, I agree with most of what you say, particularly about the current status of the U.S. constitution as an international model.
      My point was that the people who designed our Constitutional system were (all too well) acquainted with the British parliamentary system as it then existed, and were reacting to some of its flaws.
      I believe that the British parliament of the time was responsible primarily to the monarch, not to the people who chose its members. And British suffrage at the time was far more limited even than ours when the Constitution was drafted.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/23/2014 - 04:33 pm.

    The founders didn’t want a parliamentary system because they were concerned that a system of government that functioned on a majoritarian, as opposed to a consensus basis, might abolish slavery. Naively, they thought they could save the peculiar institution with a process solution. What we learned from subsequent events was that their process solution couldn’t save slavery, it could only make a peaceful solution to the problem of slavery impossible to achieve. The Civil War was only a part of the price we paid for their naivete.

  7. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 01/23/2014 - 10:46 pm.

    French Role Models

    Given the the French are on their Fifth Republic (along with an on-and-off again monarchy and 2 empires–all within the same time-span as the U.S. Constitution), they do have a solid history of trying to get it right–and not doing too well at it.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/24/2014 - 05:49 am.

    French system

    For some reason, the French adopted a presidential system of government. And historically, their system has been just as troubled as ours.

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