Would Two Presidents be Better than One?

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PPR seminar speaker makes a case for a dual presidency to break through partisan gridlock.

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If two heads are better than one when it comes to thinking, would two heads of state be better than one for governing?

Yes they would, argued David Orentlicher, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, at a recent seminar sponsored by the Penn Program on Regulation (PPR).  His talk, “Two Presidents Are Better than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch,” summarized his new book of the same name.

According to Orentlicher, in designing the U.S. executive branch to be headed by a single person, the framers of the Constitution unwittingly created a structure that has weakened the relative role of Congress and has created a seemingly intractable partisan divide in Washington. Orentlicher thinks two heads of state are better than one to reduce partisan politics, address political dysfunction, and restore the balance of executive and legislative powers.

In Orentlicher’s model, voters would elect two presidents based on the top two vote-getters in a presidential election.  The presidents would have to come from different parties. Typically, that would mean a Democrat and a Republican, but third party or independent candidates also could ascend to the White House.

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The two presidents would have to work together to get anything done.  Under Orentlicher’s proposal, “the two presidents have to be equal, both would have to sign bills before they become law from Congress.” They would even both have to agree on nominees to fill cabinet positions and Supreme Court openings.

Currently, presidential nominees can languish in the Senate awaiting confirmation. Orentlicher argues his bipartisan presidency model would eliminate delayed confirmations.

In Orentlicher’s opinion, the American presidency today does not accurately reflect the founder’s vision of an ideal executive.  In his view, the framers intended for Congress to set the policies of the U.S., and for the president to implement those policies.

According to Orentlicher, the president has too much power over both domestic and foreign policy matters. He explained that, in his view, the president now controls the enactment of all regulations and rules, whether for education, air quality, health care, or other issues.


PPR Director Cary Coglianese, moderating

Orentlicher initiated his talk with an anecdote that drew on his experience as a three-term state representative in Indiana: “When I was elected, like most candidates I pledged to be bipartisan and work with my colleagues across the aisle, and I planned to support good ideas, whether they were Democratic or Republican.” He said it learned “very quickly it is difficult to remain above the partisan fray.”

Orentlicher said that the structure of our political system reinforces the partisanship of our time.  He argued that “partisan conflict at the national level is driven largely by the fact that we give all of the executive power to one person, rather than having the executive power divided upon multiple officeholders.”

A powerful presidency may appear to be a recipe for effective governance, but as Orentlicher characterized the situation, the opposite has turned out to be true. He believes that the executive branch has become much more of an imperial power. The president is so caught up in his party’s beliefs that the opposition party’s strategy is often just to obstruct the president using any means possible.

The relationship between parties has brought progress in Washington D.C. to a screeching halt. As Orentlicher views the situation, a bipartisan presidency would provide the needed cure.