Sample Precis #2

James L. Sundquist, Constitutional Reform
and Effective Government

A précis is a common assignment in many courses, particularly in Politics and Policy courses at CGU. For tips on how to approach this task, see our handout on Writing A Précis.


In Constitutional Reform and Effective Government (1992), James L. Sundquist evaluates a number of proposed solutions to structurally relieve the conflict, ineffectiveness, and recurring gridlock attributed to divided government, short electoral horizons, and constitutional constraints.[1] Sundquist, a founding director of the Committee on the Constitutional System[2] and a senior fellow emeritus with the Brookings Institution (a non-partisan research organization), examines how structural modifications--though politically difficult to enact--might remedy the institutional impediments to collaboration and effective governance. Originally published in 1986, Sundquist's analysis affirms concerns that the pervasive problems in modern governance, particularly interbranch stalemates and the escalation of the deficit, are symptoms of the immediate need for constitutional reforms. By looking to the past for the structural and institutional roots of divided government and interbranch conflict, Sundquist exposes the practical defects of popular reforms and the institutional barriers to their adoption. Beginning with the premise that the "tripartite constitutional design has evident and serious weaknesses" (p. 20), Sundquist identifies the merits and potential pitfalls of proposed reforms with respect to three main criteria: (1) efficacy in promoting and maintaining effective government, (2) impacts on collaboration and the relative balance of interbranch power, and (3) political feasibility.

Methodology and Evidence

Within an institutional framework, Constitutional Reform and Effective Government merges policy evaluation with historical context. The efficacy of each proposal is evaluated as a measure of its ability to reduce interbranch gridlock, improve collaboration, foster more effective (or less divided) government, or resolve potential crises of leadership stemming from interbranch immobilization. Historical evidence and comparative analyses are used to draw inferences about the effectiveness of a proposed reform from the experiences of parliamentary or state governments with similar measures. The impacts of the proposed reforms on the balance of executive/legislative power are obtained from arguments advanced by scholars, legislators, and former U.S. Presidents. Finally, in order to evaluate political feasibility, Sundquist surveys historical evidence, including the Framers' intent of the constitutional provisions affected (primarily from records of the Constitutional Convention, and The Federalist Papers), the origins and main variants of each proposed solution, past congressional action (if any), and the barriers to adoption as discerned from the congressional record and secondary sources. In the end, these three criteria are used to distill from a wide range of proposed reforms a set of nine recommended actions.

Promoting and Maintaining Effective Government

Effective government begins with forestalling the pattern of divided government that has dominated interbranch relations “eighty percent of the time since 1968” (p. 12). Although Sundquist considers several alternatives toward this end, the most direct and effective route is by eliminating the option for voters to cast a split ticket (p. 126, 323). This would be accomplished by the introduction of a team ticket, where all party candidates--President, Vice President, House and Senate members alike--stand or fall together as a unit. Although some splintering of the parties might be expected (mid-term elections might still produce divided government, and independent candidates would face additional hurdles), team tickets are expected to cultivate party unification and "an ethos of teamwork" between the Executive and the Legislature (p. 127). The second most effective reform would be a constitutional amendment that lengthens House and Senate terms to four and eight years, respectively. This modification would eliminate losses to the President's party at midterm elections, stretch the President's "honeymoon" (thus promoting more productive policy making), and lengthen electoral horizons (hence, freeing up House members to focus on policy rather than electoral politics). Maintaining effective government would require modifications to the electoral college system (such as the award of bonus electoral votes to the popular election victor)[3] and a mechanism--short of impeachment--for resolving irreconcilable differences between the Executive and Legislative branches or reconstituting a failed government. This latter reform would be accomplished most effectively through a special election initiated by the President, the Senate, or the House, to recast all the elected positions for full terms (p. 206, 207, 324).

Impacts on Collaboration and the Relative Balance of Power

A second class of proposed reforms pertains to minor adjustments in Executive, Legislative, and shared powers. The measure of effectiveness for these modifications is two-fold: improved interbranch collaboration[4] coupled with minimized disruptions in the balance of power between the President, the House, and the Senate. First, as a "means of linking the executive and legislative branches," Sundquist recommends a constitutional amendment to remove the Article I prohibition against dual office-holding (pp. 232-245, 324). Second, a single amendment consisting of four measures--which individually distort the balance of power, but collectively neutralize adverse effects--is prescribed. This omnibus amendment would grant the President a line-item veto, restore the (presently unconstitutional) legislative veto, validate the War Powers Resolution of 1973, transfer treaty approval to both houses, and reduce the two-thirds supra-majority requirement to a simple majority of the members (pp. 278-315, 324). The former amendment would cut new channels of communication between the branches, although its usefulness is expected to be limited by the sheer workloads of cabinet members and representatives. The latter amendment would (a) legitimize first-line-of-defense negotiation tools to defuse conflicts arising from budget provisions; (b) ground administrative control in the Executive branch (subject to Legislative oversight); (c) minimize disputes over the boundary between Commander-in-Chief powers and the congressional power to "declare war"; and (d) transfer the veto power in the treaty ratification process from thirty-four Senators to majorities of either house. These constitutional amendments could potentially forge increased collaboration, reduced veto points, and more effective policy making.[5] In sum, modifications to improve government effectiveness and promote collaboration would mitigate two central and institutionally exacerbated dangers of divided government: economic meltdown arising from uncontrollable budget deficits and government paralysis in times of crisis (p. 322).

Political Feasibility

With respect to political feasibility, "[i]t becomes an axiom of constitutional reform," Sundquist pessimistically concludes, "that any structural amendment that would bring major benefits cannot be adopted--again, barring a governmental collapse that can be clearly attributed to the constitutional design--while any measure that stands a chance of passage is likely to be innocuous" (p. 330). The most effective measures will likely encounter organized institutional opposition and little public support. This grim prediction is based on (a) the assumption that most Americans fault incumbents (as opposed to the Constitution) for government failure, and (b) the zero-sum nature of the reforms and the inevitable opposition by incumbents who are expected to perceive their losses as outweighing the potential collective gains (p. 329).


The immense political barriers to real, non-incremental structural reforms create a paradox for American government. It turns out that once the political insurmountability of constitutional reforms is taken into account, party strengthening measures and particularly the overhaul of campaign finance statutes become the centerpiece doctrines in building effective national leadership (pp. 245-274, 324). Measures such as nominating convention reforms, campaign finance reforms that channel political contributions through the parties, government-subsidized political media purchases, and strengthened internal party discipline would "serve the same objectives" as the recommended amendments, albeit considerably less effectively (p. 276, 324).[6] By curbing intra-party dissension, effective government would be fostered through unified objectives across branches. This would ensure a solid core of support for the President's agenda, despite rifts in the partisan control of the branches. This finding conflicts with generations of reforms made since the Progressive Era's dismantling of the party machines, and cultural biases that associate individualism with heroism, and standing one's ground (despite partisan pressures) with courage (pp. 90-93,111-125, 258-277). In the end, the same institutions that have fostered stability in American government for the last two centuries hold the seeds of its demise. Real reform is the captive of culture, education, and democratic institutions that immobilize the collective public and political will to act.


[1]Page numbers refer to the revised edition: James L., Sundquist, Constitutional Reform and Effective Government, revised ed., Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1992. The numerous reforms considered in this work can be classified into six categories by function: (1) impede the occurrence of divided government (team tickets, assigning bonus seats to the President's party, ballot changes, delayed congressional elections); (2) expand the "window" of opportunity for productive, effective policy making (increased Presidential and Representative terms, longer electoral horizons coupled with term limits), (3) restore lost Executive leverage (repeal the Twenty-Second Amendment); (4) promote interbranch collaboration (revisions to the separation of powers, campaign finance reforms, party discipline enhancements); (5) reconstitute a failed government (special elections); and (6) modify constitutional checks and balances (line-item veto, legislative veto, war powers clarification, treaty approval modifications, referenda votes to resolve legislative impasses).

[2]The Committee on the Constitutional System (CCI) is an organization of active and former government executives and legislators, scholars and observers engaged in surfacing and evaluating constitutional reform issues since 1981 (p. vi).

[3]This would reduce the possibility that the electoral college might award the majority of its votes to a candidate who failed to win a plurality of the popular vote, and correct the problems associated with the mechanism where the House determines the winner in cases of plurality where no candidate receives a majority of the electoral college votes (p. 195, 323).

[4]This includes items where constitutional clarification is needed for the purpose of sanctioning existing or recommended policies (such as the War Powers Act of 1973) or practices (such as the legislative veto or budget excisions); or where the legitimacy of a practice is disputed or ruled unconstitutional (such as impoundments).

[5]Conspicuously absent from Sundquist's top reform priorities are the restoration of presidential leverage through the repeal of the Twenty-Second Amendment (presidential term limits), congressional term limits, and the resolution of legislative impasses by referenda. These reforms were generally found to be ineffective, inherently counter-productive, or potentially disruptive (pp. 175­187, 315-319).

[6] Sundquist finds that strengthening political party organizations and building interbranch collaboration through modifications of checks and balances "would have only a tardy, indirect, and limited effect" (p. 277). The most effective measures remain those that improve the effectiveness of government by directly attacking the central problems of divided government and short electoral horizons.

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