Saturday, December 18, 2010

What if there were no 20th Amendment?

Sandy Levinson

Eugene Garver, who teaches philosophy at St. John's College in Minnesota, has made the extremely shrewd observation that were it not for the 20th Amendment, which in 1933 changed Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20, then George W. Bush would have had to take responsiblity for the Great Bailout that occurred in January-February 2009. (There's little doubt that the Bush Administration would have done that, given that Henry Paulsen and Ben Bernanke led the initial bailout in November-December 2008.) No doubt Bush would have tried to enlist Obama's support, just as Hoover tried to enlist FDR's support for his policies during the long hiatus in 1933, but Obama could have remained above it all, more than happy, to put it mildly, to let W. take the hit for the "giveaway to Wall Street." Instead, of course, Obama has taken the enormous hit for doing what was quite clearly, all things considered, necessary, and the Republicans could therefore run against the bailout and forget that George W. Bush actually started the whole thing (not only the financial meltdown but also the extraordinary measures to prevent the world from going into full-scale Depression).

I'm certainly not sorry that the 20th Amendment speeded up Inauguration Day. Indeed, of course, I believe that it is highly dysfunctional that we don't inaugurate new presidents as soon as possible after election day. But this is just another example of how the rigid structures imposed on us by the Constitution have very real political consequences.


Would Obama really have been able to stay above it all? Would all of the decisions have been done, and done in a final way, by then, especially if Bush had a motivation to delay things as long as possible?

It's hard to know though your bottom line point is right -- it's meant to be that way. Given Obama needed a lot of time as it was to get some of his administration into place, him coming into office sooner would also have various major consequences. Some negative, perhaps.

Joe asks good questions, and the only honest answer is "we'll never know." But it is clear that Pausen and Bernanke believed that remarkable things needed to be done ASAP, beginning, recall, with TARP. Many congressional Republicans would have been most unhappy, and they would have wanted to wait, but would they really have rejected pleas (that I'm reasonably confident would have been forthcoming) from Paulsen and Bernanke that something really needed to be done, right now? (Again, we'll never know.)

But, Sandy, the fact that Obama couldn't get the bailout he wanted without taking the hit himself is a good thing, from a standpoint of democratic accountability. We shouldn't mourn the lack of an opportunity to obscure where an office holder really stands, we should be thankful for it. That the general public disagrees with you, and will punish Obama in 2012 for agreeing with you, does not change that basic point.

The current lame duck session has demonstrated that, if there's a problem right now, it's that Congressmen get to hang around too long after they lose elections. Not that Presidents are lacking in opportunities to evade public recognition of their positions.

I think there is some part of the post which would launch a discussion of the modern configuration of the electoral college.

However, addressing the post's characterization of the TARP and related processes, I think the undercurrents in global finance have yet to be explicated, although the origins of the markets and banks crunches, respectively, were rooted in both Clinton and Bush administrations; Bush2 had a soporific alertness to fiscal matters and a kind of political resignation to the afterwash of its management style, which, I believe, has to be viewed contextually beside (and of lesser significance than) the Patriot Act and its progeny as supersets in voters' minds going to the polls in 2008. I think voters ascribe the mess mostly to Bush, and rightly so, for the stated reason(s); not to Obama, who kept the transition to his administration smoothed by preserving many key economy oversight principals in office throughout. Economic cycles are longer than 4 months or 14 months, irrespective of electoral college law in the US. The problem here for Republicans is that smart leadership in the Republican party and its supporters in business know it ain't Obama's blotch, rather, it's much more Bush2's.

An interesting counterpoint recently was provided in an abbreviated essay by Lyle Denniston in a decennial retrospective of December 12 2000 at Scotus, which he wrote as a guest there.

Bush was indeed center-left on many of his policies including the TARP. However, it is an enormous stretch of the imagination that Dubya would have agreed to a $800 billion "stimulus" spending spree, the added 20% increase in discretionary spending or the nationalization of GM and Chrysler. That takes a true believing socialist like Obama.

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