The Constitutional system

A small group of well-heeled people has reached the conclusion that the American system of government is functioning badly - so badly that something must be done. It is trying to do it.

The group has been operating for about a year and has just completed a two-day conference here. Co-chairmen are Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel (who ran the 1969 Commission on Violence) and C. Douglas Dillon, former secretary of the treasury. Walter Cronkite is associated with the theme. Latest informal sessions here (held at the Smithsonian Institution) included Robert McNamara, one-time defense secretary, several former congressmen like J. William Fulbright, Richard Bolling, and Henry Reuss; and James Sundquist, Constitutional authority from the Brookings Institution. The group is financed by the Dillon Fund and other groups and is opening a small office here with a part-time coordinator. It is highly respectable. All it wants to do is to tighten up the American system of government.

The group which calls itself the Committee on the Constitutional System has its eye on the 200th anniversary of the Constitution. It would like to have something ready for Independence Hall, Philadelphia, in 1987. Well, why not? Alexander Hamilton might ask, why so late? His final Federalist paper pleaded for ratification of the Constitution despite its imperfections because its defects could be cured by later amendment. Thomas Jefferson wanted a new constitution-drafting process every generation. The great document hasn't been changed much in two centuries, chiefly because it has worked so well. But increasingly problems mount. The world is more complex. It moves faster. The Cutler-Dillon group thinks it's time for a new survey.

This reporter (who finds himself, somewhat to his surprise, involved in the group) shares some of the concern. Is there reason for it? Well, here are criticisms frequently heard:

* Opinion polls report with increasing insistence a feeling of dissatisfaction in the public.

* Voter participation has fallen steadily in elections; in 1980 only 54 percent bothered to vote.

* Political parties used to give coherence; they have steadily lost influence.

* Some laws (immigration enforcement) seem near collapse.

* Annual $200 billion deficits threaten to stay.

* Divided government grows: during 18 of the past 20 years, one party controlled the executive branch, and the other organized one or both houses of Congress.

A reporter in Washington notes a degree of stalemate and deadlock. Who's in charge, anyway? If, an issue is dangerous enough there is a unifying of forces to be sure. But the House of Representatives, for example, now has some 121 subcommittee chairmen out of 435 members, each claiming minimum authority and often able to delay things. The dilemma of the American constitutional system is that the checks and balances (deliberately inserted to frustrate despotism) in the 20th century often lead to indecision and inaction. For the most part rash and arbitrary actions have been deterred. But is this being gained at growing costs? Except in times of great crisis, the government is now often unable to act quickly.

Well, I think the situation is serious and deserves a second look. What better time for it than before the great bicentenary? Shall we use the anniversary for celebration - or cerebration?

The new Cutler-Dillon group will conduct studies and hold public hearings on how the Constitution might be improved. Partly no doubt the stalemate and public loss of confidence reflects the unsatisfactory performance of particular elected leaders. But the quality of leadership is itself the product of the constitutional processes by which these leaders are chosen. And the basic question is whether any set of leaders, however wise and public-spirited, can make the present constitutional structure function to restore public confidence.

Who is running things? Sometimes the President blames Congress; members of Congress blame the President and one another; and amid the recrimination, people lose confidence in government itself.

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