The broken institution at the heart of America’s dysfunctional politics
When the framers of America’s Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, it was well known to the assembled delegates that George Washington would be the first chief executive of the new government. He loomed over the convention, literally, as its presiding officer, and physically in stature.
While Washington remained scrupulously neutral on most questions, his presence alone lent the whole project greater credibility and vitality. It also weighed heavily on the mind of the delegates when it came time to drafting Article II, with its sparse description of the president and his powers.
On June 1, 1787, it was proposed to the constitutional convention that the yet-unnamed national executive “consist of a single person.” In the words of James Madison, whose notes remain the primary record of the convention, “A considerable pause ensu[ed].” It was then Ben Franklin who broke the silence, observing that it was “a point of great importance.”
Despite its great importance, after a relatively brief debate, almost all of the states voted for a single-person executive. They then turned to what they regarded as the more pressing matter: length of term and method of election. It seemed nobody was willing to cast aspersions on the intentions and trustworthiness of the presumptive President-to-be, or to suggest he might be corruptible by the temptations of power.
Paring back the elected monarchy
The powers of the office, of course, have grown immensely from Washington’s humble “chief magistrate,” as he preferred to refer to himself. Not only has power flowed to the presidency, but in many ways it has come to resemble what the Founders feared: an elected monarchy.
Americans go to the polls to select not just a CEO for the government, but their vox populi.
By the 21st Century, we live in the era of an imperial presidency. Congress has become a secondary focus. But the time and energy and agenda all revolve around the White House and its occupant. Americans go to the polls every four years to select not just a chief executive officer for the government, but their vox populi, their Jacksonian tribune of the people, the ceremonial embodiment of the nation.
The limited constitutional description of an officer who “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” has given way to something far more grandiose and powerful.
In the words of Gene Healy of the Cato Institute, in his book The Cult of the Presidency, “presidential candidates talk as if they’re running for a job that’s a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and supreme warlord of the earth.” The psychological toll of the office on its occupant has become increasingly well-documented, and not just the stress of governing and making important decisions.
Surrounded by a circle of sycophantic yes-men and living in a security bubble, interactions with the public are largely limited to adoration from supporters. It can be a toxic environment for Presidents aiming to keep in touch with reality and some sense of normalcy. The effect on our national discourse is worse. It has polarized America into two parties largely defined by their support or opposition to the incumbent President.
The sheer gravity of the office’s political importance drowns out all other concerns and debates. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Split executives and state executive councils
Most nations split their head of state and their head of government. This convention largely arose from parliamentary governance under constitutional monarchies. The crowned monarch serves as the ceremonial and non-political symbol of the nation, while a prime minister or the equivalent wields political power from the legislature. In most republics, the same basic model was emulated, with a similarly powerless president filling the same limited role.
The United States, however, rejected the combination of the legislature and executive. Madisonian checks and balances instead called for an independent executive, outside of the legislature and not serving at its pleasure. Through the use of things like the veto power, clemency, and appointments, the American president is intended to serve as a counterbalance to Congress. The constitutional convention considered, and rejected, the idea of having presidents elected by Congress.
Another proposal was considered. Many states, particularly in New England, had rebelled against imperious royal governors that had abused their power and tried to supersede the legislature. In response. when they drafted state constitutions, many created an extremely weak executive. They also carried over something from their pre-revolutionary charters: the idea of an executive council. Elected independently from the governor, the council supervised the governor. Its consent is required for the exercise of many executive powers.
Viewing executive power as the most threatening branch of government, these states sought to diffuse it among more than one individual, while still providing the “vitality” and responsiveness of a unitary chief executive.
The unitary executive is not the norm in American states
In fact, most states today do not have a unitary executive. Officials such as the attorney general, a secretary of state, and other key officials are elected independently of the governor.
A few, like Massachusetts and New Hampshire, even retain the executive council. And – in a concept that is foreign to the way we now view the federal executive branch – it is common for the state’s executive offices to be split across party lines.
The most notable example of the difference that come from splitting up the executive, comes from an unlikely source on the other side of the Atlantic: Switzerland.
Sharing the duties of chief executive in Switzerland
When the Swiss federation of cantons set out to write a new constitution in 1848, they explicitly looked to the United States for inspiration. They also incorporated some local practices. In many ways, the Swiss Constitution is much like its American counterpart.
There is a bicameral legislature, with the upper house consisting of two legislators from each canton, and a lower house based on proportional population. There is also an independent executive; chosen by a special joint session of the legislature.
Reflecting a tradition dating back to ancient Roman law, however, this executive consists of a council of seven members. Though the Swiss Constitution was revised with major overhauls in 1891 and 1999, this feature remained unchanged.
The Swiss Federal Council is elected to a term of four years, just like the American president. The election formally takes place in a special joint session of the legislature, where each member of both houses sits a single body and casts one vote. In this way, the allocation of votes mimics the way the electoral college gives each state an elector for its combined total of Senators and Representatives. It’s a hybrid of federalism and democracy.
How a multi-person executive functions
But this election is mostly a formality, like Electoral College. In practice, the allocation of seats is governed by a formula that allocates them to the major political parties. This is done roughly in proportion to their number of seats in the legislature: Two seats each are held by the Liberals, the Social Democrats, the Swiss People’s Party, and a single seat for the Christian Democrats.
Each member also takes responsibility for a department, and it functions like a cabinet. But decisions are made by the entire Council.
Though elected on a partisan basis, the members of the council do not act as leaders of their respective parties. All decisions are taken collectively, and council members defend and implement decisions even when against their party’s, or their own, position.
The Council also includes a semi-official eighth member, the “federal chancellor.” Unlike in Germany, where the same title is used for what is effectively a prime minister, the Swiss chancellor is the head of the civil service. He or she attends the council’s meetings and prepares its reports, but casts no vote.
The head of state role is held by the Swiss Council as a whole.
Separate from the chancellor is the President of the Confederation, a “first among equals” position that rotates annually among all of the members. In a national emergency, the President can take some actions unilaterally, but in practice this does not occur. The Swiss government is very clear, however, that this role is not the head of state: The head of state role is held by the Council as a whole.
Operating like a corporation, with approval ratings above 60 percent
The Swiss council systems operates much like the board of directors of a corporation. The atmosphere is collegial, and the effect is to force an executive that is always a grand coalition of all major parties.
The council maintains approval ratings that are almost always above 60 percent. Those are numbers that an American president, or Congress, can only dream of during fleeting moments of national unity.
Most significantly, there is no cult of personality around a single national leader. Members of the council live in their own homes and go about their daily lives like ordinary Swiss citizens. Parties compete for legislative seats based on their respective agendas, but the implementation of these laws by the executive is not a partisan affair..
A modest proposal: Abolish the American presidency
Could such a system work in the United States? First, the divisive cultural tensions of a presidential election would fade away. Partisan politics would still exist, but primarily through the fight for seats in Congress. Party leaders there would be the primary public face of their party’s agendas.
Some seats on such a council would likely go to respected elder statesemen and other notable citizens. Perhaps some would be without partisan affiliation, but well regarded for business or non-profit success.
But former governors, senators, and congressmen would also have seats. Perhaps so-called “third-party” representatives would be included. Even if not, the fact of a seven-member executive would force Republicans and Democrats to reach consensus on members of the executive council, and executive decisions.
Playing the “who’s got a seat” game
Imagine, for example a seven-member council like Switzerland. If the power of the executive branch was not invested in solely in one person, like Donald Trump, but instead also include a lefty like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, and a moderate Democrat or two like Cory Booker or John Hickenlooper.
Republicans might have a conservative Ted Cruz and moderate John Kasich or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps a libertarian like Gary Johnson or Rand Paul, or an independent centrist figure like Angus King might slip in. Any given citizen would not likely agree with or even like all the members of the executive council, but would you fear the council the way many would fear any one of them being president?
It may well be time to abolish the president to save the Constitution.
The bottom line is that Americans would suffer much less anxiety, less palpable fear and outrage, over who is the chief executive under a council system. The political universe would shift to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue – Congress – where the founders originally intended it to be located. It may well be time to abolish the president to save the Constitution.
(Photo from the Twitter feed of the government of Switzerland’s official foreign affairs website, cartoon of conflicts between Franklin Roosevelt and Congress by Joseph Parrish in the Chicago Tribune, and photo of traffic down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol in November 2006 by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.)