Revision — From the February 2014 issue

Dissolve Congress

A cure for constitutional crisis

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Over the past five years, every industrial nation has had its own version of the same economic fight: champions of austerity on one side, advocates of social spending and economic stimulus on the other. It’s tempting to view America’s ongoing political dysfunction as merely one version of this fight, and thus to dismiss it as an aftereffect of the 2008 financial collapse. But the peculiar form the fight has taken in the United States — threatening every few months to hobble the economy with a government shutdown or a debt default — suggests that the country’s institutional dysfunction is no longer a consequence of perpetual crisis but rather its cause. Other democracies have been faced with debt fiascos even more acute than those in the United States, but they have not experienced America’s institutional breakdown. Recognizing as much, some citizens have blamed America’s unique pathology on partisan squabbling, gerrymandering, or special-interest spending. In doing so they ignore the true source of the problem, perhaps because it also happens to be a long-standing source of pride: a nearly 230-year-old constitution stretched past the limits of its usefulness.

There is nothing more tiresome to an American than to be lectured by a Frenchman — a fact on unmistakable display during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it happens that the nation of Lafayette possesses a curious loophole that might help the United States stop making a fool of itself. In 1815, on the heels of revolution and a subsequent turn to empire, France drafted a new constitution. Many of our political leaders — from Talleyrand to Chateaubriand — had already lived for a time in exile in the United States and were familiar with its relatively youthful institutions. They were drawn more to the British model. To this they added a crucial feature: when the government reached an impasse, whether due to a disagreement between the executive and legislative branches or to the inability of one coalition to obtain a legislative majority, the president could call for elections. Instead of waiting months, or even years, to weigh in on the handling of a crisis, voters could have their say immediately. This Charter of 1815, which has served as a template for subsequent parliamentary regimes, allowed the chief of state to dissolve the lower chamber and organize new elections. This is what took place on September 5, 1816, when Louis XVIII observed that the Ultraroyalist majority (the Tea Party of its time) was blocking the passage of government initiatives and sending the country toward crisis. Instead of resting on the laurels of “checks and balances” while waiting for passions to cool, it goes straight to the heart of things and holds the government accountable to its voting citizenry.

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