No need to fix federal, state constitutions

The American system of government, enshrined in the federal and state constitutions that are two centuries old, is challenged.

Is change needed? Do Americans want a stronger legislature or more powerful executive?

The federal system, with Congress and the president elected separately, is unlike the British parliamentary system where the prime minister is a member of the legislature.

At the time of the American Revolution, King George III shared political power with parliament. The United States rebelled against the British system.

The Founding Fathers wanted a chief who was not a legislator, yet not one with royal powers. Congress, which predated the Declaration of Independence, was meant to play a major role.

Because the trusted George Washington was to be in charge, the new Constitution gave the president some real authority but often subject to congressional oversight – the famous checks and balances.

In the years since then, the president has gained powers, often given by Congress or the courts. Congress is an equal branch, but usually lacking the party discipline characteristic of the parliamentary system.

Newt Gingrich, when he was GOP Speaker of the House in the 1990s, came the closest to changing the system to a parliamentary regime. He induced his party to accept a unified and disciplined approach with leaders doling out penalties for non-compliance. That made Congress a stronger negotiating partner with Bill Clinton, a Democratic president.

What has held the Republicans together in recent years is their common conservatism. Now, political pragmatism is undermining the GOP try for a parliamentary system.

Ever since the Gingrich quasi-parliamentary system was installed, the popularity of Congress has declined. Strict partisanship has brought fewer and fewer results, though many voters want results more than ideological purity.

The big GOP win in the 2014 congressional elections brought to Washington many Republican representatives elected from districts that would usually be expected to choose Democrats. To keep their seats in 2016, some newcomers and even some old-timers will need to become more moderate.

Strict discipline is already slipping. The GOP House leadership wanted to pass a bill, sure to be vetoed and thus only a political gesture, to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But GOP women representatives balked, forcing the leadership to back off in a single day.

It is now possible that the all-but-invisible moderate group in Congress will return. Composed of Republicans from states that could elect Democrats and Democrats from states that could swing to the GOP, this group might be large enough to force Congress to compromise and deal with President Obama.

All of this may reflect the political will of the electorate and not be caused by any constitutional reform. The country’s most sacred document is general and flexible enough to accommodate the changing political system. It could be better, though different definitions of what’s “better” would be sure to arise, but it continues to work as the country evolves.

Meanwhile, Maine Gov. Paul LePage would like to move the state constitution away from a parliamentary influence more toward the federal, presidential system.

The drafters of the Maine Constitution limited the governor’s power and sought to buttress checks and balances. Gov. LePage does not like living with constitutional officers – Secretary of State, Treasurer and Attorney General – elected by the Legislature, a system involving real sharing of political power.

Because of his frustration in dealing with an attorney general elected by legislative Democrats, he would prefer either to appoint the occupant of that office, removable like any department head, or have the person popularly elected. An elected attorney general could produce the same conflicts LePage dislikes.

Over the years, there have been many political party splits between Maine governors and attorneys general. They found ways to work together and rarely required the governor to hire his own lawyer using taxpayer money.

LePage is also worried that, if a state chief executive left office early, his or her replacement, now the Senate president, could be of a different party, rejecting the elected governor’s program. He wants a governor to pick his own lieutenant governor.

In 1959, a Democratic governor, who died after less than a year in office, was replaced by a Republican. Back then, the governor had a two-year term, so the voters soon chose again.

If LePage’s worry merits concern, Maine could go back to two-year terms, like New Hampshire and Vermont. Or it could require a new special election for the rest of the governor’s term.

Still, the current system, nationally or in Maine, really isn’t broken, so why fix it?

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.