How the United States can oust its losing politicians fast.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 14 2010 4:40 PM


Can America oust our electoral losers from Washington as fast as Britain does from 10 Downing Street?

David Cameron. Click image to expand.
David Cameron

As the world speeds up, can American constitutional democracy keep pace? This month floods hit, terrorists plotted, oil gushed, markets nosedived (then rebounded), and ash spewed. In response, our government moved at warp speed to calm investors, nab suspects, tweak airline rules, redeploy ships, and operate floodgates. But what if a month like this coincided with a period in which the wrong people are in power—that is, in the lame-duck moment when our country is being run by leaders who have just been evicted by the voters but have yet to vacate the premises?

On this score, Britain and America offer a study in contrast. In Britain, voters vote and losers leave almost instantly, as we have just witnessed. Gordon Brown is dead (electorally speaking); long live David Cameron!  But in America, George W. Bush continued to hold office for months after his policies were decisively repudiated by the voters. Even as the economy continued to crater, the people's choice, Barack Obama, had no right to take charge.


American history serves up other such particularly awkward transitions. On Nov. 8, 1932, Herbert Hoover lost the presidency to Franklin Delano Roosevelt by a whopping margin of 472 to 59 electoral votes (57 percent to 40 percent in the popular vote count), yet remained in power until March 4, 1933, as the nation drifted further downward and government did … nothing. Between Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, the nation plunged into its deepest crisis ever because the electorally repudiated incumbent, James Buchanan, refused to nip secession in the bud. For most of the nation's first century and a half, voters waited even longer for a new Congress—13 months after Election Day for the House (yes, from a November election until December of the following year) and also for the Senate, elected via state legislatures.

Now we wait 10 weeks for the whole federal government to turn over, thanks to the 20th Amendment, ratified shortly after FDR thumped Hoover. Could America sync up with the 21st century's pace and transfer power with near-British speed?

It is widely thought not: Because various dates are fixed in our written Constitution, Americans have generally assumed that we could never approximate British briskness without a major constitutional overhaul. But in fact, Americans could speed things up dramatically without any need to amend our good old Constitution. All we need to do is creatively revise our political customs and tweak our election statutes.

Begin with the executive branch. Imagine that in November 2012, Mitt Romney and Chris Christie decisively best Barack Obama and Joe Biden on Election Day. In fact, Romney could become president in a matter of minutes after the concession speeches, regardless of the official timetables in the Constitution. First, Vice President Biden could graciously step down, Gordon Brown style. Next, President Obama could nominate Romney to be vice president, under the 25th Amendment (the one that enabled Richard Nixon to nominate Gerald Ford in 1973 after Spiro Agnew resigned). Congress could immediately confirm Romney by simply voting yes for him (as Congress eventually voted yes for Ford in 1973). And then Obama could gracefully step aside for President Mitt Romney.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.