I recently got a tour of the West Wing, and while it was fun to see it for historical value, I was constantly struck with how pathetically tiny it is. Your average Walmart has twice the square footage of usable space.
As a result every empty cubbyhole has been crammed full of desks because it is is just not large enough to hold the organization. This makes it the perfect metaphor for how our government’s blind commitment to tradition is often crippling us.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the West Wing is too small. It was first built in 1902 and the last major renovation was in 1933. Back then many of the current cabinet positions like Secretary of Energy, Education, Homeland Security and HUD didn’t exist, and the population of the country has roughly tripled.
If the government was “run like a business” (as some conservative call for) an organization which has seen this level of growth would have upgraded to much larger office space a long time ago. Instead, some of the most powerful people in the country are stuffed on top of each other at their desks.
Really bad office arrangement is only a minor symptom of the problem, but our government’s blind loyalty to “tradition” is causing serious damage to government policy and the lives of millions. The worst offender is probably the Senate. Many in and out of the Senate still defend the “proud” tradition of the filibuster even though for most of its history its only function was to shamelessly block legislation meant help protect African-Americans from violence. The filibuster for legislation still exists even though it was a main source of gridlock in recent years. In addition, the idiotic tradition of “blue slips” are keeping the federal judiciary painfully understaffed.
While the Senate has some of the glaring issues, there are also many significant government institutions where we should seriously rethink the status quo. There is, of course, the insane way we elect our President using the electoral college. Not only is it stupid, unfair, and deeply unpopular; but also it creates the risk of producing a crisis of governmental legitimacy by letting the popular vote loser potentially become President (through succession).
Another is the lifetime term for federal judges instead of a long fixed term. Lifetime appointment is an idea so obviously fraught with potential problems most sane democracies actively rejected our example. Instead of realizing that the founders might have made a mistake, we have people in their seventies and eighties making decisions about tech policy they barely understand. We also constantly run the risk of having some of the most important decisions in the country made by old men going senile because they are determined to hold on until the “right” President is elected to choose their replacement.
The founders believed that the status quo should be questioned and changed if it is causing problems. We should show a little more willingness to do the same.