I suspect that
Worrying whether a particular country's constitution is fit for purpose can seem a pointless activity. In the end, these problems are self-correcting: if a constitution doesn't do its job, if it doesn't strike the right balance between the interests of the governed and the need for good governance, then it collapses. The process may take decades, centuries even, but in the end countries get the constitutions they think they need - or deserve.
All this seems especially true of the country with what many still see as the greatest constitution of them all -
Or so I thought, until I arrived in
What I saw brought back to mind a letter I had sent to the Foreign Office in 1991, at the end of a four-year tour as the British Embassy official covering American domestic politics. In it, I had set out my worries about the ways in which the Constitution of
Some two decades on, it was the overseas consequences of that constitution that came to worry me, as Ambassador in
The distribution of power between the executive and the legislative branches of government, and within the executive branch, also seemed to create more problems than it solved. In so many respects, the Constitution is an 18th century solution to an 18th century problem - an over-mighty Georgian monarch. The result - the shackling of the chief executive through a series of legislative controls - means that the executive can hardly spend a cent without the prior consent of the legislature.
Worse, and perhaps more corrosive, the legislators have a big say in how that money is spent, thus exposing those running almost continually for re-election to huge outside pressures from lobbies of one kind or another. Within the executive branch, the hundreds of posts filled by political appointment mean that few if any senior federal officials spend more than four years in a job. Those chosen for such posts may be well-qualified professionals, but too often an 18th century system of patronage is used to reward political loyalty. Moreover, competition between the great departments of government seems almost ingrained in the system, as each senior appointee seeks to fill the key jobs in his gift with his own clientele. A weak and weakening presidency has great difficulty in corralling strong barons.
Such divisions of the spoils of government, in terms of jobs or cash, may be necessary for ensuring the buy-in of political constituencies scattered across a continent. But they do not necessarily make for good government.
All these defects may be an acceptable price to pay for functioning democracy on a giant scale, when that democracy's job is to allocate ever-increasing resources. But, as we have seen in the repeated gridlock over the federal budget, they may only accentuate the difficulties of slicing up a shrinking cake.
I have no easy answer to these questions. A fundamental re-balancing of America's constitution is clearly not in prospect. But I cannot help observing that, while
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