With the US presidential race heating up, the candidates are increasingly prone to make sweeping promises. They say they will do this or that in their first day in office – balance the budget, close the prison at Guantánamo, abolish the Federal Reserve, whatever – and their supporters all cheer that one of their cherished goals will be achieved instantly if only their man gets to sit in the Oval Office.
This is, of course, rank nonsense. And it has nothing to do with the relative absurdity of the promises being made. It has to do with the nature of US government, which is something even Americans often forget.
In the US system, the president is far weaker than the chief executive in most other countries. The reason is that it was baked in the cake by the framers of the constitution who were deeply sceptical about monarchism. They wanted a leader who was subservient to the legislature, not its overlord.
Congress was given most of the power in the American system. The executive branch is severely constrained. For example, all senior executives must be confirmed by the Senate, an enormously difficult and time-consuming process. Congress also controls the executive’s purse strings. The president’s budget is merely a proposal that is often “dead on arrival” in Congress.
But the founding fathers didn’t trust Congress either. They divided it into two branches, the House of Representatives and Senate. Each has powers denied to the other. The Senate, in addition to having sole jurisdiction over confirmations, is the only branch necessary to ratify international treaties. All revenue bills must originate in the House.
The founding fathers didn’t give much thought to political parties. It may not have occurred to them that Congress and the presidency could be under different party control or that the House and Senate could be controlled by different parties. Presently, the president is a Democrat and the Senate is controlled by his party, while the House is controlled by the Republican party.
Lastly, the American system bends over backwards to accommodate minority viewpoints in Congress, creating many choke-points in the legislative process where a small group of legislators can block and even defeat legislation that has majority support. In the 100-member Senate, it only takes 40 votes to kill a nomination or piece of legislation.
While it is possible that the next president will bring in with him an overwhelmingly large number of congressmen and senators of his own party, such that he really can implement his promises, no matter how extravagant, this is extremely unlikely. Even if one party gets control of the White House, Senate and House, the other party is almost certain to have at least 40 votes in the Senate, thus ensuring gridlock for any proposal that is remotely controversial.
Thus we can safely ignore sweeping promises from all the presidential candidates if they require the enactment of legislation. This is especially so regarding the federal budget. The vast bulk of spending is effectively on automatic pilot in the US because it involves entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare that are exceedingly difficult to change because so many people are affected by them.
Where the American president has a freer hand is in the area of foreign affairs. However, given that Barack Obama’s foreign policy is virtually identical to that of his predecessor’s, Republican George W. Bush, it’s unlikely that any significant changes will occur regardless of who is elected. The rhetoric may change, but the substance will be pretty much the same, I believe.
The American government is like a large ocean-going vessel – it changes direction only very slowly. This is both strength and a weakness. It’s a strength when momentary radical movements gain popularity and discover that they can’t really change anything, as leaders of the so-called Tea Party have discovered, to their dismay. It’s a weakness when some existing program desperately needs reform and a determined minority blocks action, thus perpetuating an undesirable status quo indefinitely.
The writer is a former senior economist at the White House, US Congress and Treasury. He is author of ‘The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform – Why We Need It and What It Will Take’