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.