System Overload


Bill Clinton has begun to babble. This is what he said at a shopping mall in Cleveland:

"We've got a lot of complicated problems. And I know—I knew when I got there it wasn't going to happen overnight. I tried to make it happen overnight. I've been criticized for doing more than one thing at once. I've always felt—can you do one thing at once? Can you do—wouldn't it be nice if all you had to do was go to work and not take care of your family? Would it be nice if you could pay your bills and not earn any money to pay them? I don't understand this whole—you can't do one thing at once. But anyway, that's what they say."

Yes, the once-articulate president's circuits have definitely overloaded. Analysts cite falling poll numbers to explain the sudden lack of coherence. "A rising percentage of the public thinks he's losing control," declares Ted Koppel.

But something deeper and more important than shrinking popularity is at work. Bill Clinton—the smart guy with a policy prescription for every ill—has run headlong into the U.S. Constitution. Clinton is stretched too thin not because he has the wrong personality or the wrong chief of staff but because U.S. presidents just aren't supposed to do so much.

Even Alexander Hamilton, that advocate of "energy in the executive," never envisioned a president with a policy on how long businesses should let employees off to care for children or how much doctors should charge for their services. Even Hamilton didn't hold the executive responsible for every job in America—much less for laws on the width of bathroom doors or the proper size of apricots.

Tariffs or no tariffs, war or no war, high taxes or low taxes, tight money or loose money—those were the sorts of broad questions the American government was designed to deal with. And it wasn't supposed to "make it happen overnight." The Constitution purposely promotes deliberation and gridlock. No wonder Clinton is going crazy.

So are the rest of us. We are in the midst of an unacknowledged constitutional crisis. The official forms of government, the ones set up in 1789, do not fit the current functions. The system is overloaded.

Members of Congress spend their days literally running from committee to committee, with hearings often scheduled simultaneously. Except in rare instances the floor debate is a sideshow for C-Span junkies. Members carry pagers that warn them of up-coming votes—in which they pass bills hundreds of pages long that no one has read from start to finish.

Some people think the 15,000-plus congressional staff members are running the country. But that can't be the case, since Congress so often leaves the meaning of laws up to regulators and courts. What does "reasonable accommodation" of disabled employees require? Nobody knows.

No human being—not the president, not 100 senators, not 435 representatives—can master the details of thousands of pages of bills and millions of pages of regulations. As a result, law making takes place in the shadows, mysteriously. And the people grow suspicious.

Tapping those suspicions and taking a cue from Ross Perot, President Clinton has been attacking lobbyists lately. "The more we seek to change things the more we draw lobbyists to Washington to see if they can stop the change," he complains.

"To be sure, these lobbyists often represent points of view that genuinely deserve to be heard. And we in government often benefit from their views. But there are times when these powerful interests turn debate into delay, and exert more influence over decisions in Washington than the people we were elected to serve do." His solution: drastic restrictions on campaign contributions and political speech, plus tax funding for campaigns and vouchers for commercials.

But attacking lobbyists doesn't solve the problem. It exacerbates it, by further undermining the nation's constitutional design.

Nobody wants to admit it, but lobbyists are as constitutionally protected as journalists or preachers. The First Amendment declares quite absolutely that "Congress shall make no law…respecting…free speech…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The Framers didn't envision the family-leave bill, but they did envision lobbyists. James Madison's famous essay in Federalist 10 is all about special interests. But Madison sought to check faction with faction, not to restrict the liberty to lobby: "Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency." In Madison's design, gridlock would save Americans from the tyranny of special interests.

Today's problem isn't that people lobby. It's what they can lobby for and what they must lobby against. It is politicians dedicated to government action in a system dedicated to government restraint. Lobbyists are expensive specialists, the products of a system that governs every detail of life. If the din of experts drowns out the voices of naive petitioners, that doesn't prove ordinary folk don't need lobbyists. It only proves they can't afford them.

In the press conference announcing his campaign-finance program, the president made a remarkable statement. He said, "I wish we could give people more control over their lives not less."

If he'd follow through on that sentiment and relinquish to the private sphere some of the details of life, Clinton could not only reduce public cynicism. He could get his voice back.