Vol. 26 No. 3 (July 2016) pp. 54-57

RELIC: HOW OUR CONSTITUION UNDERMINES EFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT AND WHY WE NEED A MORE POWERFUL PRESIDENCY, by William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 256pp. Cloth $26.99. ISBN: 9780465098583.

Reviewed by Graham G. Dodds, Department of Political Science, Concordia University. Email:

Complaints about governmental dysfunction in the U.S. have been commonplace for some time. In RELIC, well known political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe contend that many current problems – like Congress’s apparent inability to enact urgently needed commonsensical policies – are mere symptoms, the true causes of which are rooted in the Constitution. Specifically, they claim that Congress occupies the central position in the federal government but is deeply dysfunctional, they see Congress’s many shortcomings as inevitable because they are hard-wired by the Constitution, and they argue for changing the Constitution to make the presidency more powerful and prominent.

The book’s first chapter is devoted to examining the Constitution, which Howell and Moe say was designed by people who were very different than us and for times that were very different than ours. They note that the founders believed in inequality (per republicanism and race) and that their values “are not the values of modern America” (p. 8). They also say that the Constitution was designed for a “premodern” world (p. 23) and that it is truly a relic “wholly out of sync with modern society” (p. 24). But the authors do not entirely fault the Constitution or its authors for this state of affairs; they also fault the American people for failing to update a document that is so outmoded.

Howell and Moe contend that in the early twentieth century progressives managed to make the antiquated constitutional regime work effectively, by weakening political parties and the separation of powers while strengthening administration and the presidency. But they also argue that the Progressives’ success was limited, later eroded, and that the many subsequent changes in American society over the past century require a different approach to resolving “the disconnect between government and society” (p. 45).

In the second chapter, Howell and Moe examine Congress, which they see as the central part of American national government, and they find it wanting. They contend that Congress never really worked well, that even in the supposed good old days of the 1960s it was not altogether functional, and that Congress is “increasingly archaic” (p. 51). This is not due to the particular individuals who comprise Congress, it is the result of institutional influences on members’ behavior. Because of the way the Constitution set up Congress and its electoral incentives, members of Congress are profoundly “parochial” or blind to concerns beyond their home districts or states, they are “myopic” or focused only on short-term consequences, and in terms of public policy they care only “about the pieces, not the whole” (p. 55).

As a result, Congress does not work well. It is prone to inaction, even when it can be roused into action it tends to produce incoherent and thus ineffective policies, and it seldom revises existing laws that desperately need to be changed. Moe and Howell discuss numerous examples of this, including Model Cities, No Child Left Behind, and failed attempts to reform policies dealing with welfare, energy, immigration, and Social Security. They say that Congress “is egregiously incapable of dealing with the formidable array of serious social problems” in the contemporary U.S. (p. 143). Moreover, the authors contend that institutional reforms like strengthening political parties or altering the structure of congressional committees cannot overcome these fundamental shortcomings. “Congress can provide no solution, because it is the main culprit” (p. 94).

[*55] Instead, Howell and Moe look to the presidency to save the nation from its inadequate and inept legislature, and the book’s third chapter is devoted to explaining why presidents are institutionally suited to overcome Congress’s many shortcomings. They argue that unlike individual members of Congress and therefore also Congress as a whole, presidents are national rather than parochial “in their outlook and orientation” (p. 100), presidents are concerned about their legacies and thus with the long-term rather than just short term political consequences, and presidents are attentive to the whole rather than just the pieces of policies. These attributes explain why “there are no legislators on Mount Rushmore” (p. 106), as effective policymaking requires the orientation that only presidents have. Unfortunately, according to the authors, presidents are “manifestly underpowered” (p. 172) in the American constitutional system, so their ability to overcome the failings of Congress is often stymied.

In the book’s final chapter, the authors seek to remedy this condition by advocating for a stronger presidency. They maintain that while the presidency has powers at its disposal, they are not up to the task: “the institutional presidency is insufficient” (p. 151), as are unilateral presidential directives like executive orders. What is needed is to move the presidency from the back seat to the driver’s seat and move Congress “to the back seat, where it belongs” (p. 161). In short, they say, “We need to put the president at the helm” (p. 152).

Howell and Moe maintain that institutionally prioritizing the presidency would require a constitutional amendment. Specifically, they propose an amendment that would give the president “fast-track” authority to propose legislation that Congress would have to accept or reject without amendment (on a majoritarian basis, without filibuster), much as it does for trade deals. This one reform would supposedly enable the president to effectively promulgate coherent policies to address pressing problems by forcing Congress to take a stand while blocking Congress’s genetic propensity to introduce the various complexities and inconsistencies that are the hallmarks of traditional legislation. The authors recognize that such a reform would be no small task, yet they encourage Americans not to be reflexively uncritical of the Constitution or to engage in “founder worship” (p. 177): “The Constitution can’t be off limits” (p. 144). They also recognize that Congress itself would be unlikely to pass such an amendment, but they hold out the hope that the states could do so, as two-thirds of the states could petition Congress for a constitutional convention.

As the above description indicates, this is an original, interesting, and provocative book. Howell and Moe are not the first to be critical of Congress (e.g., Mann and Ornstein), to argue for fewer constraints on the executive as a way to enhance government effectiveness (e.g., Posner and Vermeule), to point out that the founders’ ideas differ from contemporary realities (e.g., Wood), or to bemoan blind faith in the Constitution (e.g., Dahl). But their critique and their proposed solution are both striking and are certain to spark many a good debate.

Some readers may well think the authors have overstated the problems of the U.S. constitutional system or that their remedy is too extreme. Is it true that the nation’s governance problems are so profound that they cannot be remedied within the existing constitutional framework? For example, is there no way for the president to exert more control over Congress, short of getting fast-track legislative authority? Perhaps the president could repeatedly call Congress into session and thwart members’ common desire to spend as little time in the Capitol as possible, in order to force the institution to act, if not to cow it into submission. Or the president might refuse to sign into law problematic legislation and could use the presidential bully pulpit to publicly rebuke or embarrass particular members of Congress or even the whole institution for egregious inaction, inconsistencies, loopholes, or earmarks.

Similarly, might not Congress itself do better and thereby be saved the subordinate status that Howell and Moe endorse? The authors say that popular remedies like strengthening political parties or getting money out of politics would not help, but surely there are other possibilities. Even with the collective problems that are central to [*56] Congress, might not the selfish and individualistic incentives of members of Congress somehow be marshaled to enhance the effectiveness of the institution? For example, perhaps Congress could create a standing joint committee devoted to enhancing and maintaining the holistic institutional status of the body. Congress could also create an annual award for the member who best represents or embodies the institution (perhaps regularizing the sort of praise for political bravery found in JFK’s PROFILES IN COURAGE), in order to valorize and promote institutional effectiveness over narrow political calculations.

More radically, perhaps the size of Congress could be reduced, so as to lessen the influence of narrow interests and to encourage a broader sense of representation among its members. For example, if the House were reduced by one-third, from 435 Representatives to 290, then the average Representative would represent 1.08 million people instead of 720,000. (Or, if it were cut by 40%, from 435 to 261, then the average House member would represent 1.2 million people.) Insofar as congressional parochialism is the product of its members’ natural desire to jealously represent the concerns of their constituents, and small groups of constituents may well have concerns that differ greatly from those of the majority or the nation as a whole, more populous congressional districts would perhaps reduce such a disconnect. Some local representation would be sacrificed, but the House would still afford closer representation than the Senate, and Congress’s parochialism might be mitigated.

Even if one is inclined to reject considerations like those above, the solution that Howell and Moe advocate is not without its own difficulties. For example, some readers will surely resist the call for greater presidential leadership, particularly those with a living memory of Nixonian excess, but also those whose politics is informed by more recent events. After all, how many liberals thought that the avowedly more energetic presidency of the George W. Bush years should have been even more so, and how many conservatives today yearn for a stronger Obama? Another criticism of their proposal is that Congress might pass a good presidentially-initiated law in fast-track fashion but then replace it with a lesser one of its making via the traditional legislative process, effectively nullifying the advantage of the system that Howell and Moe advocate, though perhaps the ability of the president to act first and set the agenda would deter wholesale replacement.

With its bold indictment of the Constitution and its striking proposed remedy, RELIC is wonderfully provocative and all but guaranteed to elicit reactions and counter-proposals like those noted above. The book is very well written and accessible. Explicit connections to scholarly debates are mostly relegated to footnotes, and the prose is seldom interrupted by quotations. As a result, while scholars will no doubt find it interesting, it is also well suited for a broader audience, and it may be useful for helping undergraduate students get beyond news headlines and particular politicians’ personalities to appreciate the broader institutional forces that propel U.S. politics. Indeed, one of the book’s many strengths is that it does a very good job of explaining the logic and the effects of the Constitution, for better or worse.


Dahl, Robert A. 2003. HOW DEMOCRATIC IS THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION? 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kennedy, John F. 1956. PROFILES IN COURAGE. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.

Mann, Thomas E. and Norman J. Ornstein. 2006. THE BROKEN BRANCH. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Posner, Eric A. and Adrian Vermeule. 2013. THE EXECUTIVE UNBOUND. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wood, Gordon S. 1998. THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC, 1776-1787. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. [*57]

© Copyright 2016 by author, Graham G. Dodds