Finally, it’s over — the debates, the rancor, the turmoil that these next few days will bring as officials count final votes and declare a winner of the 2020 presidential election. In the aftermath we might want to reflect on elections in general as I had to do recently when I substituted in a fifth-grade class. Our assignment was to view and respond to slides about elections, especially their history.

As the students and I worked through these slides, I was struck by several facts: The United States as a nation is only 244 years old; while white men of property had the vote from the first election of 1788, women and minorities didn’t have voting rights until 1920 for (white) women, 1870 for African American men, 1948 for Native Americans, and 1965 for full voting rights for African American men and women. Women have had the vote for only 100 years, and black people have had full voting rights for only 55 years. Only through amending the Constitution were these injustices righted.

These facts were a revelation in some respects, and I had to wonder, did we get it right? Is the form of government we live under the most effective and efficient for improving the lives of our nation’s citizens?

My friend Tom Jackson posted a piece on Facebook from Dylan Matthews who cites an essay from Lloyd Cutler, “To Form a Government.” Cutler, who served as White House counsel under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, in his essay undergirds Matthews’ belief that “few systems [are] more in need of structural improvement than the American government.” What? We need to improve the structure of our present system?

Cutler’s words have value as he was no slouch: Graduating from Yale at 18 with degrees in history and economics, he earned his LLB from Yale Law School where he graduated magna cum laude and was editor-in-chief of the “Yale Law Journal.” He served in the U.S. Army as an intelligence analyst before co-founding a law firm in Washington, D.C., that specialized in international law and public policy.

In his 1980 essay, delivered as a speech at the University of Texas Law School, Cutler argues that we were one of the first nations to write a constitution, an achievement that indicated a faith that could structure a government and amend it in the future as needed. He posits that “the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, whatever its merits in 1793, has become a structure that almost guarantees stalemate today.”

Cutler uses an example of this stalemate as it occurred when President Carter attempted to effect a SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) II that would require “explicit rules as to the size and quality of each side’s strategic nuclear arsenal” and require verification of each side’s actions. The Constitutional requirement of two-thirds of Senate “advice and consent” quashed ratification, which Cutler saw as “failure to form a government.” He continues, “Although the enactment of legislation takes only a simple majority of both houses, that majority is very difficult to achieve. Any part of a president’s legislative program may be defeated or amended into an entirely different measure, so that the legislative record of any presidency may bear little resemblance to the overall program the president wanted to carry out.”

Cutler cites these periods when the president’s party did not hold the majority of seats in both Houses: 1946 to 1948, 1954 to 1960, and 1968 to 1976. Matthews adds 1993 to 1995, 2001, 2003 to 2007, 2009 to 2011, 2017 to 2019, remarking that for two-thirds of his life “America has not been able to ‘form a government.’ ” He may mean a government that can act for the benefit of its citizens, protecting federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.

What is the cost to us citizens when our elected officials allow these stalemates to occur? Stimulus bills fail to pass, no action happens on issues like climate change, health care continues to falter, national debt rises with few controls in sight, and proposals for COVID relief are stymied, among many other issues.

Cutler’s solution to the mangled present system is that the president, Senate, and House “all serve only four-year terms at the same time, with voters choosing the same party for all three. That would go a long way to making the federal government more nimble and effective,” Matthews says. Political cynics like me do not see this change ever happening because too many elected officials make too much money as politicians. Our current President Donald Trump, for example, generously does not accept a salary, but how much is his entourage of family members earning in their “government positions”? Are they too not accepting a salary?

Cutler in his speech pointed to other countries’ parliamentary governments as models for a retrenching of American governmental structure. In Japan, for example, the executive branch (the premier or prime minister or president and his[/her] cabinet) “consists of those members of the legislature which the elected legislative majority chooses.” This majority has the responsibility of “conducting government,” and if it fails, if the legislative body rejects its programs, that government must resign and “a new government formed from the existing legislature or a new election must be held.”

Woodrow Wilson recognized the weakness in the American structural system when he said, “Our separation of executive and legislative power fractions power and prevents accountability.” Cutler offers too many solutions to recount here, but I will share one intriguing possibility: “provide the president with the power, to be exercised only once in his/her term, to dissolve Congress and call for new congressional elections.” The result is that the public will “decide whether it wishes to elect senators and [congresspersons] who will legislate a president’s overall program.”

Please find Cutler’s essay and read for yourselves his ideas about a restructuring of American government. We are a young country, and we can change for the betterment of all. Amendments in the past have confirmed that change is essential for a nation to grow and to protect its people.

Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.