A blog about hybrid politics

Executive Harmony

This is part 3 of my executive series.

A great many writers have noticed that democracies fail when autocrats take over an otherwise functioning executive branch. Propelled by voter discontent and polarization, they appeal to a generalized disgust with elites, with immigrants, or whoever they can think of. When that happens, the entire executive branch, from medical authorities to environmental regulators to the post office, is suddenly the plaything of a single corrupt individual.

Too often this is ascribed to a too-powerful executive. But that’s not the problem. The real problem is that the president (or other top level officer) has too much control over the executive branch. In this case, the executive branch isn’t too powerful, it’s too unitary. The U.S. Constitution is seriously flawed in this regard, which is clear from the first line of Article II:

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.

With one single sentence, the framers condemned the U.S. to constant fear of autocracy.

My goal is to create a minimally unitary executive, alternately described as a maximally pluralistic one. With the coordination hierarchy, I set up the structure of the executive; in contrast to Article II, the executive under a coordination hierarchy is vested in many independent officials. With the service pool, I laid out how to select candidates and build a corps of professional political officers. The only task that remains is to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise among the offices.

I have two basic methods, one external, one internal. Externally, there should be a quasi-judicial process to resolve conflicts quickly. Who owns a particular issue? Is a directive from one office to another legitimate? Has a higher office acted through lower offices (as required in a coordination hierarchy) or has that office done an end run around lower offices? While these issues should be resolved by judges, the need for fast resolution means that trials and appeals must be curtailed.

While this may seem cumbersome and costly, we should reflect on how conflicts are resolved now. Basically, the highest officeholder involved in any conflict gets their way. Combine this with appointment by the apex officeholder, and the executive branch becomes a mirror of the apex officeholder’s personality. How much does that cost? What has been the cost of President Trump’s takeover of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in which scientists have been sidelined in favor of political appointees? What is the cost to Russia of Putin’s total control of every lever of government? Maintaining a quasi-judicial process would pay for itself many times over compared to a command hierarchy.

We also want to inculcate an ethic of collaboration within the service pool. This we do with a cross-pollination requirement. Nominating parties must nominate a certain number of candidates that have previously been nominated by other parties (There are many rules one could apply to accomplish this; I will defer that discussion to another day). As they go through the system, officials will have to be nominated by multiple parties in order to continue their careers. This selects officers who work collaboratively with others, and it incentivizes officers to maintain their reputations with other parties.

This rule also highlights how dangerous the current system is. Each party maintains its own stable of potential officers, just waiting for their leader to win an election. Once installed, they have no incentive whatever to work with members of another party, and indeed they may never have an opportunity to do so, since the entire political layer is replaced. On the contrary, these officers have careers that are isolated in only one party, and hence tend to form opinions that are more and more extreme. Governments lurch wildly from one extreme to another, and its political appointees have neither the motivation nor the perspective to moderate.

These two constraints—cross-pollination and external review—provide the final conditions to ensure a pluralistic executive that can actually function. This refutes the main argument that is often made in favor of the unitary executive: that it is necessary to allow the executive branch to function coherently. If we could create a pluralistic and effective executive, why wouldn’t we?