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Will: What James Madison wanted

  • (LISA BENSON / Washington Post Writers Group)

Much is wrong with Washington these days, including much of what is said about what is wrong. Many Americans say there is “too much politics” in Washington. Actually, there is too little. Barack Obama deplores “politics as usual” here. But recently Washington has been tumultuous because politics, as the Framers understood it, has disintegrated. Obama has been complicit in this collapse.

His self-regard, the scale of which has a certain grandeur, reinforces progressivism's celebration of untrammeled executive power and its consequent disparagement of legislative bargaining. This is why Obamacare passed without a single vote from the opposition party — and why it remains, as analyst Michael Barone says, the most divisive legislation since the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Obama and his tea-party adversaries have something important in common — disdain for the practice of politics within the Framers' institutional architecture. He and they should read Jonathan Rauch's “Rescuing Compromise” in National Affairs quarterly.

“Politicians,” Rauch notes, “like other people, compromise because they have to, not because they want to.” So Madison created a constitutional regime that by its structure created competing power centers and deprived any of them of the power to impose its will on the others.

The Madisonian system, Rauch says, is both intricate and dynamic: “Absent a rare (and usually unsustainable) supermajority, there is simply not much that any single faction, interest, or branch of government can do. Effective action in this system is nothing but a series of forced compromises.”

Rep. Tom Cole, who represents southwest Oklahoma and has a Ph.D. in British history and studied at the University of London, says some of his colleagues in the House of Representatives “think they are in the House of Commons.” That is, they have not accepted the fact that, in the Madisonian system, legislative and executive powers are separated.

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