Modern-day imbalance is no way to run a government

July 29, 2011 

The Congress is broken. A bicameral system sporting a proliferation of factions has given small minorities the power to block legislation. "Do-nothing" legislatures are now the rule in times requiring regular review of hundreds of public policies.

Some readers may have heard a recent radio series on the national patent system mess. Only the Congress can fix it but the Congress can only deal with one crisis at a time, badly. Patent law is well down the list.

On a lesser scale, the Alaska Legislature suffers from the same disease.

Our recent, multiple special sessions were symptomatic. But Alaska has a constitution offering ways of fixing the problem through amendment or convention.

As every high school senior knows, the U.S. Constitution established a system of "checks and balances" among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The Founding Fathers designed our government using the British Parliament as a model. A House of titled Lords would not do; hence, an upper chamber was made up of eminent men, each titled Senator, two picked by each state legislature, to represent upper-class interests and check on the populism they feared might emanate from the House, a potentially unruly bunch because popularly elected.

In 1913, the people rose to put through the 17th Amendment, making the Senate an elective body, on the heels of their successful demand for a 16th Amendment, reversing a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the graduated income tax. As we approach the centennial of these amendments, the graduated income tax seems to be in disfavor. The view seems to be that the very rich should pay rates the same or lower than the average, middle-class taxpayer. The fear that the House would represent a populist rabble, hostile to their betters, appears to have been totally unjustified.

The Congress, in the days of the Founding Fathers, was a gentleman's club of 26 senators and a House of 106, each representing about 33,000 people, slightly less than the number now represented by an Alaska state senator. While the 106 members could be contentious, counting heads was easier. By the early 20th century, the number rose to 435, there frozen by statute. The Speaker of those times had powers like the ability to decide who got what committee assignment. Those Speakers spoke with authority. Speaker Boehner is herding cats.

Short of an unlikely landslide by one or the other party, this situation will continue indefinitely, a disaster for America. How the world will fare under alternative leadership is anybody's guess, but a politically sick America is a bad start.

The Founding Fathers could not have conceived today's world or the governmental needs of today's Americans. It is a misperception that our forebears, including participants in the Boston Tea Party, were "against government." They were not. The problem was not taxation but taxation without representation. The Founding Fathers wanted to create and strengthen a central government.

The contemporary tea party faction has more in common with the anarchists who rose as a marginal force much later in our history. Though anarchy comes in many shades of opinion, those who are "agin the govmunt, period," approving unregulated free markets as the remaining governing national principle, stripping the central government of all functions but defense, appear to represent the tea party's core adherents.

Checks and balances should operate among the three branches of government, not within each one. The president and most state governors preside over a unified branch without apparent harm. The courts issue only one ruling per case. Only the legislative power is split, not only between chambers but among committees, chairs and caucus factions. This is no way to run a government of the people.

Alaska may opt for a unicameral legislature by convention vote next year. The British have downgraded their upper house into a debating society opting for a unicameral chamber with a Greek chorus. If the people of the United States were capable of turning the Senate into a popularly elected body in 1913, just maybe they could merge it with the House a hundred years later.


John Havelock has taught public policy at UAA since his retirement as a professor of justice. He also is a former Alaska attorney general.

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