In all Republics the voice of a majority must prevail.
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take control from them, but to inform their discretion.
—Thomas Jefferson. “Letter to William Charles Jarvis.” 28 September, 1820
When the Beatles first came to America, in February of 1964—Michael Tomasky noted recently for The Daily Beast—they rode from their gig at Ed Sullivan’s show in New York City to their first American concert in Washington, D.C. by train, arriving two hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Manhattan. It’s a seemingly trivial detail—until it’s pointed out, as Tomasky realized, that anyone trying that trip today would be lucky to do it in three hours. American infrastructure in short is not what it was: as the American Society of Civil Engineers wrote in 2009’s Report Card for American Infrastructure, “years of delayed maintenance and lack of modernization have left Americans with an outdated and failing infrastructure that cannot meet our needs.” But what to do about it? “What’s needed,” wrote John Cassidy, of The New Yorker, recently, “is some way to protect essential infrastructure investments from the vicissitudes of congressional politics and the cyclical ups and downs of the economy.” He suggests, instead, “an independent, nonpartisan board” that could “carry out cost-benefit analyses of future capital-spending proposals.” This board, presumably, would be composed of professionals above the partisan fray, and thus capable of seeing to the long-term needs of the country. It all sounds really jake, and just the thing that the United States ought to do—excepting only for the disappointing fact that the United States already has just such a board, and the existence of that “board” is the very reason why Americans don’t invest in infrastructure.
First though—has national spending on infrastructure declined, and is “politics” the reason for that decline? Many think so: “Despite the pressing infrastructure investment needs of the United States,” businessman Scott Thomasson wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations recently, “federal infrastructure policy is paralyzed by partisan wrangling over massive infrastructure bills that fail to move through Congress.” Those who take that line do have evidence, at least for the first proposition.
Take for instance the Highway Trust Fund, an account that provides federal money for investments in roads and bridges. In 2014, the Fund was in danger of “drying up,” as Rebecca Kaplan reported for CBS News at the time, mostly because the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t been increased since 1993. Gradually, then, both the federal government and the states have, in relative terms, decreased spending on highways and other projects of that sort—so much so that people like former presidential economic advisor and president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, say (as Summers did last year) that “the share of public investment [in infrastructure], adjusting for depreciation … is zero.” (That is, spending on infrastructure is effectively less than the rate of inflation—which itself is pretty low.) So, while the testimony of the American Society of Civil Engineers might, to say the least, be biased—asking an engineer whether there ought to be more spending on engineering is like asking an ice cream man whether you need a sundae—there’s a good deal of evidence that the United States could stand more investment in the structures that support American life.
Yet, even if that’s so, is the relative decline in spending really the result of politics—rather than, say, a recognition that the United States simply doesn’t need the same sort of spending on highways and railroads that it once did? Maybe—because “the Internet,” or something—there simply isn’t the need for so much physical building any more. Still, aside from such spectacular examples as the Minneapolis Interstate 35 bridge collapse in 2007 or the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there’s evidence that the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure under a different political architecture.
Consider, for example, how the U.S. Senate “shot down … a measure to spend $50 billion on highway, rail, transit and airport improvements” in November of 2011, as The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman reported at the time. Although the measure was supported by 51 votes in favor to 49 votes against, the measure failed to pass—because, as Helderman wrote, according to the rules of the Senate “the measure needed 60 votes to proceed to a full debate.” Passing bills in the Senate these days requires, it seems, more than majority support—which, near as I can make out, is just what is meant by “congressional gridlock.” What “gridlock” means is the inability of a majority to pass its programs—absent that inability, nearly certainly the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure. At this point, then, the question can be asked: why should the American government be built in a fashion that allows a minority to hold the majority for ransom?
The answer, it seems, might be deflating for John Cassidy’s idea: when the American Constitution was written, it inscribed into its very foundation what has been called (by The Economist, among many, many others) the “dream of bipartisanship”—the notion that, somewhere, there exists a group of very wise men (and perhaps women?) who can, if they were merely handed the power, make all the world right again, and make whole that which is broken. In America, the name of that body is the United States Senate.
As every schoolchild knows, the Senate was originally designed as a body of “notables,” or “wise men”: as the Senate’s own website puts it, the Senate was originally designed to be an “independent body of responsible citizens.” Or, as James Madison wrote to another “Founding Father,” Edmund Randolph, justifying the institution, the Senate’s role was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” That last justification may be the source of the famous anecdote regarding the Senate, which involves George Washington saying to Thomas Jefferson that “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” While the anecdote itself only appeared nearly a century later, in 1872, still it captures something of what the point of the Senate has always been held to be: a body that would rise above petty politicking and concern itself with the national interest—just the thing that John Cassidy recommends for our current predicament.
This “dream of bipartisanship,” as it happens, is not just one held by the founding generation. It’s a dream that, journalist and gadfly Thomas Frank has said, “is a very typical way of thinking for the professional class” of today. As Frank amplified his remarks, “Washington is a city of professionals with advanced degrees,” and the thought of those professionals is “‘[w]e know what the problems are and we know what the answers are, and politics just get in the way.’” To members of this class, Frank says, “politics is this ugly thing that you don’t really need.” For such people, in other words, John Cassidy’s proposal concerning an “independent, nonpartisan board” that could make decisions regarding infrastructure in the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than from the perspective of this or that group, might seem entirely “natural”—as the only way out of the impasse created by “political gridlock.” Yet in reality—as numerous historians have documented—it’s in fact precisely the “dream of bipartisanship” that created the gridlock in the first place.
An examination of history in other words demonstrates that—far from being the disinterested, neutral body that would look deep into the future to examine the nation’s infrastructure needs—the Senate has actually functioned to discourage infrastructure spending. After John Quincy Adams was elected president in the contested election of 1824, for example, the new leader proposed a sweeping program of investment in roads and canals and bridges, but also a national university, subsidies for scientific research and learning, a national observatory, Western exploration, a naval academy, and a patent law to encourage invention. Yet, as Paul C. Nagel observes in his recent biography of the Massachusetts president, virtually none of Adams’ program was enacted: “All of Adams’ scientific and educational proposals were defeated, as were his efforts to enlarge the road and canal systems.” Which is true, so far as that goes. But Nagel’s somewhat bland remarks do not do justice to the matter of how Adams’ proposals were defeated.
After the election of 1824, which elected the 19th Congress, Adams’ party had a majority in the House of Representatives—one reason why Adams became president at all, because the chaotic election of 1824, split between three major candidates, was decided (as per the Constitution) by the House of Representatives. But while Adams’ faction had a majority in the House, they did not in the Senate, where Andrew Jackson’s pro-Southern faction held sway. Throughout the 19th Congress, the Jacksonian party controlled the votes of 25 Senators (in a Senate of 48 senators, two to a state) while Adams’ faction controlled, at the beginning of the Congress, 20. Given the structure of the U.S. Constitution, which requires agreement between the two houses of Congress as the national legislature before bills can become law, this meant that the Senate could—as it did—effectively veto any of the Adams’ party’s proposals: control of the Senate effectively meant control of the government itself. In short, a recipe for gridlock.
The point of the history lesson regarding the 19th Congress is that, far from being “above” politics as it was advertised to be in the pages of The Federalist Papers and other, more recent, accounts of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Senate proved, in the event, hardly to be more neutral than the House of Representatives—or even the average city council. Instead of considering the matter of investment in the future on its own terms, historians have argued, senators thought about Adams’ proposals in terms of how they would affect a matter seemingly remote from the matters of building bridges or canals. Hence, although senators like John Tyler of Virginia, for example—who would later be elected president himself—opposed Adams-proposed “bills that mandated federal spending for improving roads and bridges and other infrastructure” on the grounds that such bills “were federal intrusions on the states” (as Roger Matuz put it in his The Presidents’ Fact Book), many today argue that their motives were not so high-minded. In fact, they were actually as venial as any motive could be.
Many of Adams’ opponents, that is—as William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia wrote in his Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress—thought that the “‘National’ program that [Adams] proposed would have enlarged federal powers in a way that might one day threaten slavery.” And, as Miller also remarks, the “‘strict construction’ of the Constitution and states’ rights that [Adams’] opponents insisted upon”— were, “in addition to whatever other foundations in sentiment and philosophy they had, barriers of protection against interference with slavery.” In short—as historian Harold M. Hyman remarked in his magisterial A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution—while the “constitutional notion that tight limits existed on what government could do was a runaway favorite” at the time, in reality these seemingly-resounding defenses of limited government were actually motivated by a less-than savory interest: “statesmen of the Old South,” Hyman wrote, found that these doctrines of constitutional limits were “a mighty fortress behind which to shelter slavery.” Senators, in other words, did not consider whether spending money on a national university would be a worthwhile investment for its own sake; instead, they worried about the effect that such an expenditure would have on slavery.
Now, it could still reasonably be objected at this point—and doubtless will be—that the 19th Congress is, in political terms, about as relevant to today’s politics as the Triassic: the debates between a few dozen, usually elderly, white men nearly two centuries ago have been rendered impotent by the passage of time. “This time, it’s different,” such arguments could, and probably will, say. Yet, at a different point in American history, it was well-understood that the creation of such “blue-ribbon” committees or the like—such as the Senate—were in fact simply a means for elite control.
As Alice Sturgis, of Stanford University, wrote in the third edition of her The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (now in its fourth edition, after decades in print, and still the paragon of the field), while some “parliamentary writers have mistakenly assumed that the higher the vote required to take an action, the greater the protection of the members,” in reality “the opposite is true.” “If a two-thirds vote is required to pass a proposal and sixty-five members vote for the proposal and thirty-five members vote against it,” Sturgis went on to write, “the thirty-five members make the decision”—which then makes for “minority, not majority, rule.” In other words, even if many circumstances in American life have changed since 1825, it still remains the case that the American government is (still) largely structured in a fashion that solidifies the ability of a minority—like, say, oligarchical slaveowners—to control the American government. And while slavery was abolished by the Civil War, it still remains the case that a minority can block things like infrastructure spending.
Hence, since infrastructure spending is—nearly by definition—for the improvement of every American, it’s difficult to see how making infrastructure spending less democratic, as Cassidy wishes, would make it easier to spend money on infrastructure. We already have a system that’s not very democratic—arguably, that’s the reason why we aren’t spending money on infrastructure, not because (as pundits like Cassidy might have it), “Washington” has “gotten too political.” The problem with American spending on infrastructure, in sum, is not that it is political. In fact, it is precisely the opposite: it isn’t political enough. That people like John Cassidy—who, by the way, is a transplanted former subject of the Queen of England—think the contrary is itself, I’d wager, reason enough to give him, and people like him, what the boys from Liverpool called a ticket to ride.