One hears little besides politics on the news, of course, but one thing that strikes me is how little the US political system has actually changed in the last several decades. The last new state was Hawaii in 1959. The last constitutional amendment was the 27th in 1992, and it was a quite minor one about restricting the ability of Congressmen to change their salaries in a lame duck session. The last amendment of any importance was the 26th in 1971, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. So it’s been almost 40 years since anything basic changed about the US government, the longest gap in its history:
There seem to have been three phases of amendments: the initial wring-out, the big re-working after the Civil War in the 1860s, and the tinkering of the Progressive Era from 1910 until its last gasp under Nixon in 1971. The increase in states was basically the westward expansion, and then Alaska and Hawaii.
Compare the recent stagnation with what’s been happening in similar countries:
- Canada: enacted a Constitution in 1982, abolishing Britain’s last jurisdiction over it. In 1999 it created the whole new territory of Nunavut to give the Inuit more self-determination.
- United Kingdom: Reworked the House of Lords to remove hereditary peers in 1999. Devolved power to local government in Wales (1998), Scotland (1999) and Northern Ireland (2007).
- France: the steady integration with Europe, including the loss of the franc in 1999.
- Germany: Absorbed East Germany in 1990, what Business Week recently called the best merger ever.
So why has the US remained so static? There are still a lot of open structural issues after all:
- The electoral college – Everyone believes that the president should be directly elected, but this strange and broken system persists.
- Status of Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific territories – These are ruled by the US but have no voting rights. They contain almost 5M people, enough for 7 Representatives in the House.
- Lack of jurisdiction over Indian territories, no matter how ill-defined. Groups of people with quite tenuous connections to aboriginal peoples can operate in open defiance of the laws of their regions, particularly with respect to gambling. This is an obvious bug, and has been exploited for enormous profit.
- The filibuster – a 60% super-majority requirement unique to the US Senate among democracies.
There are occasional moves to act on these, but nothing comes of them. The reason has to be that the status quo suits the political elite. When there are such vast amounts of money and power at stake, no one wants to perturb things. One would have thought, for example, that the election of the disastrous George W. Bush under very dubious circumstances would have prompted calls for abolishing the electoral college, but no one even tried.
The rigidity of the current system is unusual in the US’s history, and is not a promising sign for the future. It resembles the US air traffic control system, creaking along with obsolete technology, barely able to handle its enormous volume of business, and way too close to disaster way too often. Yet you can’t replace such systems overnight, because disasters will happen in the interim. They have to be upgraded incrementally. That’s what the US has done before, but seems to have stopped doing now.