Washington — AMERICA'S democratic republic has lasted for two glorious, turbulent, productive centuries. Will it last another two? Is the American political system equal to coping with the strains and stresses, the perplexities and uncertainties, of the modern age, speeding toward an increasingly interdependent and armed world? As the United States celebrates the 200th anniversary of its Constitution, some Americans ask whether the time has come for further changes in the way the country governs itself. Frustrated by the government's inability to deal with persistent problems, from the mounting national debt to the nuclear arms buildup, and concerned that the US faces growing global challenges that will require decisive action, some respected political scholars and public officials are calling for constitutional reform.
Yet as debate intensifies in this bicentennial year, there is a quietly growing surge of appreciation for the role the Constitution plays in safeguarding representative democracy and protecting individual liberties.
------------------------------ AMERICA is young as nations go. But it boasts at least one record of longevity: The United States has the oldest working written Constitution on Earth. The Constitution is not just a piece of parchment that is consulted only when convenient or expedient, but a living document that has helped produce the most stable government in the world.
Under it, the United States has survived a history of severe challenges, including the War of 1812, the Civil War, two world wars, waves of immigration, the Great Depression, and sweeping economic, social, and technological change.
No constitutional system today has endured so long. And no system has evoked so much admiration and bafflement. Many nations have sought, in varying degrees, to emulate American representative democracy. Others are perplexed, even annoyed, by its disorderliness.
What George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton - the three leading figures behind the Constitutional Convention of 1787 - would think of their handiwork today and of how separation of powers has worked out in practice is a matter of speculation. Certainly the system has undergone extraordinary change since 1787:
The national government has grown to a point of overpowering the role of the states, which were dominant when the nation was born.
The presidency, which the framers expected to be relatively weak and sought to strengthen, has expanded into the nation's most powerful institution. With the widening role of government and a steadily growing executive branch, the president has accumulated more and more authority. Power now is seen to reside largely at the White House.
Congress, which the framers envisaged as the dominant force in government (and feared as a result), similarly has grown in size and remains powerful. But, with today's proliferation of committees and subcommittes, fragmentation of political power, and bloated staffs, Congress is less inclined to initiate policy than to let the president set the legislative agenda.
The federal judiciary was expected to be the weakest branch of government. But down through the decades the Supreme Court has become a powerful vehicle for making public policy as it interprets the law.
Political parties, which are not mentioned in the Constitution and which the framers thought would not be needed, were soon established as an integral part of the American political system. Though weakened today, they remain the means through which the national leaders and representatives are nominated and elected.
Despite the evolutionary changes in government, however, it is the stability and continuity of the American system that is most striking in 1987.
``The big story is the absence of change [in the system], given the amount of economic and social change,'' says Everett Carll Ladd, author of ``The American Polity.'' ``We still have separation of powers in all its glory - what the Founding Fathers had in mind has worked.''
While most observers of American constitutional democracy agree that the present system of divided powers and checks and balances has served the nation extremely well, concern grows among some political leaders and scholars that it is not able to deal with the deluge of issues raised by an increasingly complex technological world and injected into the political arena. Government in gridlock PROPONENTS of reform say that, partly because of divided government (that is, when one party controls the White House and the other holds a majority in one or both houses of Congress - which has been the case 60 percent of the time since 1956), efforts to make decisions or strike compromises on such issues as the federal deficit and nuclear arms control have failed. Coherence and consistency are lacking in foreign and national-security policies. Painstakingly negotiated treaties are submitted to the Senate for ratification, only to be rejected. The result, these critics say, is chronic indecision, gridlock, or stagnation in government, which tends to benefit special interests at the expense of the general good.
``The separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, whatever its merits in 1793, has become a structure that almost guarantees stalemate today,'' writes Lloyd N. Cutler, a former counsel to the president and a co-chairman of the bipartisan Committee on the Constitutional System. ``As we wonder why we are having such a difficult time making decisions we all know must be made and projecting our power and leadership, we should reflect on whether this is one big reason.''
Historian James MacGregor Burns echoes this theme in his book ``The Power to Lead'': ``The American political system faces a pervasive crisis of self-confidence that only the rarest kind of leadership can overcome. The symptoms of the crisis take the long-observed form of political disarray, institutional stalemate, and governmental ineptitude and impotence.''
Some reform advocates go so far as to favor moving closer to a parliamentary system of government. Under that system the executive officers of government are selected from the ranks of the legislative majority, thereby facilitating the ability of the majority party to carry out an overall program and be held accountable for its success or failure.
But the reformists appear to be a minority, even within the academic community. Interviews with scores of lawmakers, governors, and other public officials, as well as academics and everyday citizens, disclose an overwhelming predisposition to leave the Constitution alone.
``The genius of the framers was to set the broad principles and structure of a government that worked in their time but would be flexible enough for the indefinite future,'' says Clark Clifford, a lawyer and former high aide to Democratic presidents. ``We have a document that works today and works well.''
``Madison would be astounded, not by the great empire America became - which he expected - but by the pluralism of society made possible by the Constitution,'' comments Charles McC. Mathias Jr., a former US senator from Maryland.
``The Constitution has served us beyond the wildest expectations of the people who wrote it,'' remarks Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. ``We don't need a constitutional convention to rewrite it.''
Even the investigations of the ongoing Iran-contra affair are viewed as demonstrating the capacity of government to withstand shocks and adjust to a failure within one of its branches. ``It shows the great virtues of the American system, based as it is on a separation of powers,'' says historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ``The issue is whether the president is above the Constitution and the laws. The system guarantees that when a president abuses power, corrective forces exist to redress the constitutional balance.''
While some observers worry about another ``broken presidency,'' others maintain that the system of separation of powers will effectively respond to the situation. As the White House struggles to regain its standing, Congress will assert its authority, and the Supreme Court, in turn, will be carefully watching the legislature.
Most public officials and scholars acknowledge the existence of gridlock and the slowness of policymaking. But they contend that the problems and the solutions do not lie in the governmental structure.
``The answers are political not structural,'' says Thomas E. Cronin, author of ``The State of the Presidency.'' ``Democracy is not self-executing. We need gifted political leaders who can see the longer run and weave coalitions together. No structural gimmicks are the answer.''
Americans sometimes fail to recognize that Britain's admired parliamentary government also runs into stalemates, because these tend to be hidden from view. The British prime minister is often blocked from acting because of confrontation with his or her Cabinet ministers. Reforms proposed `THE parliamentary system is an illusion,'' comments Richard Neustadt, a Harvard scholar. ``What you would get in the United States is the French Fourth Republic [which had a frequent turnover of governments]. You could not get party disciplines, so there would be constantly shifting coalitions.''
There is no quarrel among experts that the American political system periodically needs adjusting to make for smoother governance.
Current ideas center on further reforming campaign-finance laws to strength the dam of control on the money flowing to candidates; revamping the swollen system of committees and subcommittees in Congress; revising the cumbersome budget process; making the president's national-security adviser subject to Senate confirmation; and setting up regional primaries and strengthening party rules.
Going further, the Committee on the Constitutional System, a private group that seeks to stimulate public debate, proposes changes that would require additional amendments to the Constitution. These include extending the terms of members of the House of Representatives from two to four years and of senators from six to eight years; permitting members of Congress to serve in the Cabinet; and relaxing the requirement that treaties be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate, either by lowering the requirement to 60 percent or by requiring only a majority vote of both houses.
Professor Burns, a member of the committee, says he believes that much of the misbehavior in the White House over the years, including the Iran affair, reflects a general institutional problem. ``Because there's so much deadlock in the system and because the public demands action from the government, there is enormous pressure on the White House to short-circuit the system, and not always for malign reasons,'' he comments.
If there were more collaboration between president and Congress from day to day, Burns says, ``we would avoid some of these abuses.''
But few practitioners of politics seem to want to change the structure fundamentally. ``The Constitution is a remarkable document that has endured for 200 years, and I don't want to mess with it on my watch,'' says Speaker of the House Jim Wright with a tinge of righteous indignation.
Many politicians and scholars observe that the framers of the Constitution did not intend representative democracy to be efficient. Their purpose was to create a system that would control men's greed for power and prevent the emergence of a monarchy or an oligarchy, thereby safeguarding individual liberty. Recognizing that men are capable of wicked as well as noble behavior, they sought to curb the former and encourage the latter.
``They feared both plebiscitary democracy and central tyrannical power,'' comments Princeton scholar Fred Greenstein. So the framers established a federal system of checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power.
Authority was divided between the federal and state governments and power was further divided among the three branches of the national government, each of which was expected to represent the public's interests. And Congress was further divided into two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Professor Neustadt argues that the 55 men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 did not establish a system of separated powers of government but of ``separated institutions sharing powers.''
``It was not a separation of powers so much as the creation of redundancy, with each branch doing everything,'' says Martin Shapiro, a constitutional scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. ``The system works well because of the redundancy - when one branch cannot do something, another does.''
Thus, during the Great Depression, while Congress was reluctant to act, President Franklin Roosevelt had no compunctions about seizing the initiative. And when in the 1960s Congress and President John Kennedy failed to deal with the difficult issue of racial discrimination, the Supreme Court stepped in.
Democracy, moreover, requires consensus on, or at least strong majority support for, policies before they can be enacted. This often requires time. People do not always know what they think, especially given the complexity of today's issues. When opinion has not crystallized, this translates into inaction by government.
``The problem today is not at all that our leaders know what to do and are prevented from doing it by structural gridlock in the system,'' writes Professor Schlesinger in ``The Cycles of American History.'' ``The problem is that they know not what to do.''
``You have to let water back up behind the dam,'' comments Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona.
``It's not an efficient decisionmaking process,'' agrees Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming. ``The American people have an ambivalent attitude that is reflected in Congress. But the system is very efficient at giving everyone a shot.''
This makes for stability in an extremely diverse and individualistic society, where the losers are willing to accept government decisions if they have taken part in the process.
``The democratic system keeps the debating going,'' says John P. Sears III, a lawyer and longtime GOP consultant. ``It's good to take time because you can hear from everyone and, after they've had their say, they can live with [the eventual decision].''
Because the public was long indifferent to the widening federal deficit, for instance, neither the president nor Congress tackled the problem. But with opinion now shifting, the legislators are beginning to pull back on defense spending, and more talk is heard about the need to raise taxes. `Something is going on' `THE problem is not the system, the problem is the people who are running the system,'' says Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, one of the architects of last year's tax reform law. ``There is no process fix that will give people the courage to confront problems or to take risks. Tax reform is important because it demonstrates that something can get done.''
To some, the mere fact of government inaction does not mean that nothing has happened. Despite the groping for progress on nuclear arms control, for instance, no nuclear device has been exploded in anger since the detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the unratified SALT II agreement remains largely observed by the US and the Soviet Union.
``Something is going on,'' says political scientist Nelson Polsby. ``The people who complain and want to reform things believe their view is sovereign. The constitutional writers sympathized with the right [to voice] opposing views. The people who complain and want to reform things want their view to prevail.''
Perhaps the most powerful argument against structural change is that the system has proved so resilient, allowing for self-correcting forces to assert themselves to counter potentially dangerous trends.
John Shannon, executive director of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernment Relations, notes the current swing of the pendulum toward the states after decades of expansion of power in the national government. He, too, observes that Congress is beginning to deal with the deficit issue by denying President Reagan huge increases in defense spending.
``We always are looking at the problem,'' Dr. Shannon says. ``We're so concerned with pathology that we don't recognize a healthy person.'' Underlying values noted THE Constitution is not the sole reason that Americans govern themselves as they do, of course. Many nations have democratic constitutions; some follow, to a degree, the American model. Yet some are not robust, vital democratic republics.
Underpinning American democracy are also historical traditions, mores, and spiritual values that make it possible for the Constitution to operate.
It is perhaps in this intangible area that many thoughtful observers are seeing danger signs and a need for change.
John Gardner, a civic reformer and former Cabinet officer, points to the difficulty of holding a pluralistic society together when there is such preoccupation with individualism rather than the collective good. ``It's hard to govern with a disintegration of shared values,'' he says.
``Democracy is not a law of nature,'' comments Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, pointing to the moral decay that destroyed many other civilizations. Uncontrolled greed, excessive self-interest, insufficient attention to education, apathy to work - these are signs of ``creeping crisis,'' he warns.
But as Americans reflect on the state of their republic and the daunting challenges ahead, they take heart that the framers established a governmental system strong enough to withstand the tremors of crisis and flexible enough to permit change and evolution.
In Mr. Gardner's words, ``The genius of our Constitution is that it makes renewal possible.'' Tomorrow: The rise of presidential power Further reading: Miracle at Philadelphia, by Catherine Drinker Bowen: Little, Brown and Company (1966). The American Commonwealth, by James Bryce: Macmillan and Company (1895). The Founding of the Democratic Republic, by Martin Diamond: F.E. Peacock Publishers (1981). The American Polity: The People and Their Government, by Everett C. Ladd: W.W. Norton and Co. (1985). A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture, by Michael Kammen: Alfred A. Knopf (1986).