07/26/2011 02:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

The Debt Ceiling Impasse: It's Madison's Fault

The big question of the week (other than "Will Washington drive our economy off the cliff?") is "Who's to blame for this crisis?"

You might point at John Boehner and his intransigence on revenues. You might blame Grover Norquist and his inane no-tax pledge, which made said intransigence politically necessary for the Republicans. You might blame President Obama for not getting the debt ceiling raised sooner, perhaps back last year when he agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts. You might blame Congressional Democrats, who are too beholden to entitlement programs to allow for compromise.

But the real person to blame? James Madison.

Any first-year law student who is actually listening in class rather than Facebooking or G-chatting can tell you that in drafting the constitution, the Framers' primary worry was of factions. Fearing that a faction would seize control of the mechanisms of government, Madison designed a framework for the federal government that would separate power into three branches, and then sub-divide the most powerful branch -- Congress -- into a House and Senate. This would make it virtually impossible to get anything done unless there was a good amount of common ground.

Making the federal government, and particularly the Congress, into a plodding, deliberative decision maker was a brilliant design. Brilliant, that is, if what you want to guard against is the federal government doing much.

Fast forward 200 years or so. Now, the greatest risk to the country, indeed to the world economy, is federal government inaction. To avoid default, the federal government must act to raise the debt limit.

But because of the structure that Madison designed, we find ourselves at impasse. Factions have seized not the power to act but the power to create deadlock. Each faction is acting in its own best interests to get re-elected in the next cycle. The Republicans won't put tax increases on the table because they are beholden to the "read my lips" crowd. The Democrats won't put hard cuts to entitlements on the table because those cuts would hurt their core constituencies.

Meanwhile, the president may be in the mood for compromise, but because he "owns" the economy the Republican leadership is in no mood to reciprocate.

The bottom line in all of this is that Madison's framework makes for a bad institutional decision maker in a crisis. Congress simply is not built for nimble decision making.

Through the years, we have made the situation even worse. The Senate's filibuster rules allow a minority to bring that half of Congress to a standstill. The practice of drawing Congressional districts to be "safe" for one party or the other means that individual representatives will hail from a part of the political spectrum far from the center, making the institution as a whole less able to compromise.

The debt ceiling itself is a status-quo oriented, inaction-producing influence. In order to create a government program, say, to protect senior citizens from poverty, it is not enough for Congress to reach consensus on the initial bill and appropriations. They also have to agree every few years to raise the debt ceiling to pay for it. Other countries don't let the forces of intransigence have two bites at the apple like that.

We might still see reason prevail and the debt ceiling increased. It's not unusual to see negotiations go until the last minute. In fact, it's elementary bargaining strategy to wait as long as possible to play your chips.

But the federal government is not your typical institutional decision maker. Because of Madison, small factions that may not in fact want a deal may hold enough chips to keep a deal from happening at all.

So in the blame game, blame James. Madison, that is.