THERE is every prospect that this presidential election will end up as a number of others have recently, with the government divided: a situation that seems inconceivable in other democracies. The White House is run by one political party and Congress in one or both houses by the rival party. More often than not they end up blaming each other for what goes wrong.
Between 1954 and 1984 Republican Presidents have occupied the White House for 18 of the 30 years. But the Democrats have organized the House ever since 1955, and the Senate from 1955 through 1980. How can you run a country that way? President Eisenhower dealt with Democratic majorities in both houses during his last six years in office. Presidents Nixon and Ford faced the situation during their eight years. President Reagan has confronted a Democratic House during his first term. My guess is that if he is reelected, he will find one or both houses held by the opposition for the next two years.
A group of political scientists is meeting here this weekend to consider whether there is any way to reduce the frequent deadlock between the legislative and executive branches of the American government. It's a six-year-old group called the Committee on the Constitutional System (CCS). Its members include leaders like Douglas Dillon, former secretary of the Treasury, Lloyd Cutler, one-time counsel to President Carter, and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum.It would like to help smooth America's political path before the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution on June 21, 1988.
What's the matter with the Constitution -- hasn't it served all right? That's just the trouble; it has served superbly for part of the time. It was the most radical document of its time: While the rest of the world had kings, czars, and emperors, the bold little nation at the other side of the Atlantic adopted representative democracy.
But a cardinal feature of the system, which doubtless saved the little democracy many times at first, is questioned now: Is it really necessary to pit the executive against the legislature in such a militant way?
In a forthcoming book sponsored by the CCS, James L. Sundquist traces the history and notes items modern revisionists might look at: "At no time in the nearly two hundred years of Congressional deliberations has either body considered any amendment that would affect the structural independence of those branches or established linkages between them. Never has the central dilemma of the Constitution been confronted: how effective leadership can be assured in a government of divided powers, how institutions set in competition with one another can be brought into a sufficient degree of harmony for collective action , how the people can fix responsibility when power is dispersed and so, through the electoral process, hold their elective officers accountable."
This year's election takes on added interest when the contest is approached from this angle. The CCS has been considering constitutional and other changes for four or five years. It has made no recommendations yet. But to its own satisfaction this intelligent, high-toned group has been trying to isolate the problem. It has just distributed a set of "proposals for consideration," offering the pros and cons of each one: "The central problem with which CCS is concerned is the tendency of our Constitutional system to produce conflict between the executive and one or both houses of the legislature branch leading to delay, indecision, and sometimes immobilization in the policymaking process, uncertainty in foreign affairs, and absence of clear responsibility and accountability in the President, the legislators, or a political party."
The CCS is a conscientious body. It has worried about its problem for years. There is not a more learned group in the country for westling with various proposals for changing and streamlining the government. Some members look longingly at Canada, which has just held an election and where if the Parliament changed so much as a dollar in the Cabinet's forthcoming budget there would be a new election. In the United States the deficit is extraordinary, and nobody can agree on whose fault it is.
The CCS will shortly make positive recommendations, according to plan. Should -- or can -- any of them be adopted by the Constitution's birthday?