By Donella Meadows
–August 2, 1992–
Just about everyone admits these days that the American democracy is both broken and broke. Many ideas are circulating about how to fix it, most of which, as far as I can tell, would make things worse.
The most popular fix seems to be term limits. Fifteen states are putting term limit options on their ballots this fall, some of them not only for state legislators but for congressional representatives. There is also a move to amend the Constitution to limit the number of terms of all members of Congress, just as the 22nd Amendment already puts a two-term limit on the presidency.
Term limits, the argument goes, will guarantee a steady rotation of citizens in and out of office. It will prevent incumbents from building up entrenched empires of money and power. It will — here is the real reason this measure is popular among Republicans — nudge mostly Democrats out of the Democrat-dominated Congress and give Republicans their own shot at domination.
I can see the attraction of an automatic eject mechanism to throw the rascals out. But why do we elect rascals? Why do we need a constitutional amendment to get rid of them? Why don’t we, the sovereign electorate, vote them away at any and every election? Why are we in such an all-fired hurry to give up our freedom to distinguish between the bad apples and the good?
The term limit fix diverts attention from the deep faults in our electoral process — the soundbites and dirty campaigns, the public’s misinformation about actual government performance, the corrupt system by which incumbents build up their empires of money and power. Term limitation is a cheap substitute for true reform, a subject to which I will return after denouncing two more quick fixes: the balanced budget amendment, and the idea of one-party dominance over both Congress and the presidency.
Requiring Congress and the president (or, for that matter, state legislatures and governors) to balance every budget every year follows the same wierd logic as term limits — it forces people to do what they already have every power to do, without ever asking why they are not already doing it. A balanced-budget requirement would also destroy a useful management tool. There are many bad reasons to run a deficit, and a few good ones. Government should have the power to borrow in time of severe emergency, such as war. It should be able to borrow for investments that can clearly pay a future dividend, such as road-building. The swings of economic cycles can be dampened, if government has the wit and discipline to run deficits during recessions and surpluses during economic booms.
Recent governments have run deficits during booms, have spent stupidly, have engaged in partisan stonewalling that make budget-balancing impossible. That has happened because we have elected irresponsible, witless, ideological governments. The cure is not to take a good tool out of our leaders’ hands, it’s to put that tool in the hands of people who know how to use it and not abuse it.
We will hear endlessly from both Democrats and Republicans in the coming campaign about how the White House and Congress ought to be controlled by the same party — theirs. Says House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill) “We have come to the point in American history where a president of one party simply cannot lead if the Congress is dominated by the other party.”
Why, after more than 200 years of two-party checks and balances, deals and compromises, has the time for one-party rule come just now? It hasn’t. A divided government is unworkable at the moment because too many people on both sides have stopped making it work. They focus on keeping power instead of solving problems. They would rather win fights than seek truth. They blame others instead of taking responsibility. Nothing works when people behave that way, not a marriage, not a corporation, and not a government.
These quick-fix proposals are all steps away from democracy. They are bludgeons intended to force the whole nation to follow One True Way. The fact that anyone takes them seriously reveals how poorly our leaders and voters have been educated in the principles of democracy. The very essence of democracy is the idea that no one knows the One True Way. It takes every point of view, fairly represented, freely expressed, vigorously argued, to find a broad enough vantage point to see any truth at all.
The fixes our democracy really needs are clear. They are the ones the people in power do not want to talk about. Block the processes by which incumbents accumulate money and power. Don’t permit paid political ads. Don’t permit contributions of any kind to any politician for any purpose. Attach automatic eject mechanisms not to time in service but to ethics in service. Require the media, as their democratic duty, to give equal access to all candidates in blocks of time or space long enough for facts and analysis, not jingles and one-liners.
And if there’s to be a constitutional amendment, make it concern the duty of a democratic nation to educate all the people in the duties of democracy and in critical thinking, so they can no longer be manipulated by their own leaders.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992