Anyone paying attention knows the American government is broken. Whether we understand the Constitution or not, we know intuitively that something isn’t right. We may grouse generally—“Government spends too much money,” or “Government should be doing X”—but it’s hard even to begin explaining why the system isn’t working.
There are several major trends that explain a great deal. The first has its origins in the founding of the Second American Party System in the late 1820s and the growth of the patronage or “spoils” system; the second has been the growing irrelevance of the House of Representatives in recent decades; and the third is the much more recent cowardice (or ignorance) of our state legislators. These developments have placed the American system of government in triple jeopardy. Thus, it is imperative to understand how we got here, and why these changes in the electoral and legislative systems will not permit any real change short of revolutionary change.
If you want to blame one man, blame Martin Van Buren. While still a state senator in the New York legislature, he was horrified by the Missouri Compromise in 1820. Both Van Buren and Thomas Jefferson perceived that the Compromise, which eventually allowed a half-dozen or more new free-soil states to gain admission to the Union, would inexorably lead to civil war. Free-soil states and their allies would quickly gain majorities in the House and the Senate sufficient to pass antislavery laws. When that occurred, the South would have no alternative but to secede.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Van Buren had the best of them. His solution was at once brilliant and disastrous. He reasoned that the Democratic-Republican Party was no longer viable. A new, more effective party would require loyalty to a principle of negation, that is, a commitment to preventing national discussion of slavery in any official capacity. How to enforce this, though? Van Buren’s answer was clever: Find something more powerful than ideology—even antislavery ideology. That something was self-interest: He would reward people for not talking about slavery by giving them political jobs within the party or the government.
Van Buren initiated a spoils system, known then as the Albany Regency, in which government would grow larger with every election. To get elected, a candidate had to promise jobs. The newly formed Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson, operated a similar system. Once a competitor party, the Whigs, appeared, they had no choice but to climb on the patronage bandwagon.
The horror stories about the corruption that resulted were well known even by Lincoln’s time. Lincoln had lines of people waiting outside his office begging for government jobs. It was such a problem that one president, James Garfield, was literally killed over it: his assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a frustrated office-seeker.
Lawmakers enacted the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883 to reform the patronage system. The act required standardized tests for various government positions, so that to join the Civil Service, one took an exam rather than beg a politician for an appointment. Today, such testing covers the vast majority of government positions.
Alas, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. After Pendleton, rather than promising a few dozen jobs to supporters, politicians now had to escalate their disbursements to large so-called “interest groups.” Farmers, teachers, autoworkers, and retirees all started to lobby for government goodies in the form of subsidies, government-permitted price controls, minimum-wage laws, or other acts of the government. The result was the same, except that groups instead of individuals were now on the receiving end of the patronage behemoth.
America’s legislative structure is built on a winner-take-all/single-member district system in which there are no proportional “seats” in Congress. Whoever gets a majority gets the seat, whether it is won by a few hundred votes or by millions. One either wins everything or one loses everything. And to win, remember: you need to promise more goodies than your opponent.
This makes it notoriously difficult to defeat incumbents who, after all, won by giving away jobs and other favors, and who now have the power to give away more. This makes it nearly impossible for a third party to make any headway at all in this system, especially outside of the presidential race. To give away jobs as a member of the House, you have to be part of the majority. That means you will either be a Democrat or a Republican. No Libertarians or members of the Reform or Green parties need apply. A party languishing in the 5-percent electoral range would need to double its turnout in four consecutive elections to reach majority status. No one is going to wait that long.
Hence, the Populists melted into the Democrats after a few years on the national stage. The Progressives fizzled almost as quickly. Ross Perot’s Reform Party was a personality-driven organization tied to Perot’s quirky style, and hasn’t come close to cracking 10 percent in any election since 1996. More importantly, the Reform Party elected virtually no one to Congress who wasn’t forced into the Republican or Democratic Party. Likewise, the Libertarians briefly had a single member of Congress—Ron Paul—whose own son moved into the Republican Party.
The implications are clear: Short of radical change, there can never be a concentrated effort to “reduce the debt” or “control the budget” because the very nature of American legislative politics demands just the opposite.
Two more developments, compounding our governmental disfunctionality, have emerged in the last three decades—developments which would have made the Founders’ heads spin. First, the House has made itself virtually irrelevant. This began in the Reagan years, when the Democrat-controlled House refused to balance its budgets. Ronald Reagan, desperate to impose fiscal restraint, begged for the line-item veto, which Congress rejected. In the 1990s, Republican candidates such as Jack Kemp still made occasional noises about out-of-control budgets, but with a wink and a nod: Everyone knew that barring a solid two-thirds majority of fiscal hawks in each house, nothing would happen.
By Obama’s reign, first with a two-thirds majority Democrat House, then with Republican majorities in both Houses, Congress did virtually nothing. With supermajorities, Obama managed to get little more passed than a stimulus bill and Obamacare. Republicans took over in 2011, when it was abundantly clear that the House had only two arrows left in its quiver: a government shutdown or impeachment. Clearly the GOP was unwilling to shoot either of those arrows.
Thus, for over 25 years the “muscle” of the House of Representatives had been atrophying. Donald Trump did not run primarily as a budget hawk—his focus, rightly, was more on growth and restoration. But even with a Republican House, Senate, and presidency, the House managed only a single tax-cut bill, a failed repeal of Obamacare killed by John McCain in the Senate, and an unbalanced budget that Trump, trying to woo the Never-Trump House Republicans, reluctantly signed.
Then the GOP ran off the cliff in 2018, losing more than 35 seats. Of course, Nancy Pelosi’s House made itself even more irrelevant than ever as it spent two years on impeachment and other investigations, pausing only for a COVID-19 stimulus bill, frittering away the House’s most important power, control over the budget.
This has amounted to a profound devolution of the House’s legislative power from what the Founders intended. The Senate is now the important chamber, a shocking reversal of the English system, wherein the “upper” house (The House of Lords) became irrelevant, while supreme power shifted into the hands of the lower house (The House of Commons). Under Pelosi, the final transfer of power from the House of Representatives to the Senate—which now controls the only truly important job, that of confirming appointees and judges—was finalized. Starting with Obama and then continued by Trump and Biden, real “legislation” now emanates from the president’s executive orders, with passive approval from the Senate, while the House looks on.
But the death blow to federalism and the separation of powers involved another, more recent shift: that of state legislatures willingly ceding their power to governors. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, state legislatures meekly retreated as governors turned into autocrats, driving businesses into bankruptcy, trampling civil rights, and imposing mask mandates willy-nilly. Only months later did the state legislatures of Ohio and Michigan dare to even mention gubernatorial impeachment as the lockdowns wore on, destroying state economies across the country.
To this date, not a single state governor who imposed draconian lockdown measures has been called to task, impeached, or even seen his or her power abridged, save for a couple of state supreme court rulings. Moreover, in the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, when it was clearly the right and duty of state legislatures to demand full accounting of the votes, to withhold certification of the election, and to otherwise stand up to the fraud, not one did so.
This was not just cowardice: In many cases this titanic failure represented decades of dumbing down of constitutional duties at every level. Most of these legislators did not even know they had the constitutional power to decline to certify a fraudulent vote. Republican-in-name-only governors such as Mike DeWine in Ohio and Brian Kemp in Georgia certainly weren’t about to tell them. In short, between the lockdowns and the fraudulent 2020 vote certifications, the role of the state legislatures has been just as emasculated as that of the U.S. House as a whole.
These failures constitute an abandonment of the instruments of government the Founders expected would be the backbone of the American Republic. It has been the willful self-destruction of legislative bodies at all levels that enabled the despotism of executives.
The seeds of this self-destruction originated with Martin Van Buren’s creation of a system that grew government, rewarded people with government handouts, and made “spoils,” not constitutional governance, the focal point of modern politics. Along the way, state and national legislators poured jet fuel on the fires that were consuming “the people’s houses,” and did so enthusiastically.
But to be fair, there have been some small signs of life in the corpse of American democracy. Election integrity laws have been introduced in 47 states, with Georgia leading the way. The Texas senate passed a bill blocking big tech from censoring residents over political views, and encouraged Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to sue social media companies that violate the new legislation.
Some 13 states have sued the Biden administration over “egregious” provisions in the China Virus relief bill, and the Wisconsin Supreme court also ruled that the virus did not exempt voters from proving their identity. In a revolt against governor Laura Kelly, Kansas lawmakers killed her mask mandate.
And several states strengthened or improved their concealed-carry/constitutional-carry gun laws. Most importantly, the Arizona legislature initiated an audit of Maricopa County over the objections and obstruction of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Alas, none of these initiatives have to do with budgets or radical reform of the patronage system, but these emerging signs of federalism are promising. The right may finally be getting “woke” to the danger facing the republic. Let’s hope it’s not too little, too late.