CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT AND THE SEPARATION OF POWERS

Many aspects of the current Presidential campaigns are important, and troubling. There is plenty of room for disagreement, and we have certainly had an abundance of disagreement. In my opinion both major candidates are deeply flawed, and most Americans appear to share that viewpoint. Our current method of selecting Presidential candidates appears to be incapable of producing even one good candidate. That is extremely troubling. However, there is another aspect of Presidential politics that is even more troubling to me. Americans expect too much from the President, and appear to be rejecting the principle of “Separation of Powers.”

Our nation was founded after a bloody revolution. Americans were deeply distrustful of government. They had good reason for such distrust (and we still do). Historically, governments always become oppressive and out of touch with the needs of their citizens. To combat oppression our nation’s founders limited the scope of government. Their greatest concern was that government would become too large and powerful. They were more concerned about liberty, and less concerned about economics. Their major tool to combat tyranny was the Constitution, and that incorporated the principle of “separation of powers.” There are several levels at which that separation operates.

Our Constitutional model of government divides power between the federal government, the states, and the people. The founders never intended the federal government to hold most of the power. That was reserved to the citizens. The states were to hold most governmental power, and the scope of federal government was to be very limited. That doesn’t describe our situation today. Circumstances have clearly changed, and maybe it is necessary for the federal government to have more power. However, we need to be very careful that the government we have created doesn’t destroy the Constitutional form of government that has served our nation so well for more than 200 years.

The Constitution also established “separation of powers” within the federal government. It was intended for most of the power to be held by Congress. That is where the representatives closest and most accountable to the people make decisions. Congress makes laws and establishes national policies. The President is supposed to administer those laws and implement policies established by Congress. The federal judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court, was intended to make sure that the other branches of federal government didn’t get out of hand. There is to be a “balance of power” among the three branches. Our Constitutional structure is designed to prevent any single branch of the federal government from becoming too powerful.

Over the past 70 years that model has been compromised. Today the power of the Executive branch, and specifically of the President, exceeds the power of the other branches of government. During the Great Depression the public was desperate to have prosperity restored. President Franklin Roosevelt asked for immense new powers, that Congress voted to give him. The Supreme Court initially ruled many of those laws “Unconstitutional.” However, under Roosevelt’s threat to “pack the Court” by appointing extra Justices, it capitulated. Over the following decades, various crises, including World War II, the Cold War, were advanced to justify further grants of power to the President and Executive Branch.

Today the President holds far more power than either Congress or Supreme Court. President Obama refuses to enforce laws that he happens to disagree with. That is illegal and unconstitutional, and violates his oath of office. He (and other Presidents) ignores Congress and governs through the use of “Executive Orders.” Federal agencies (like the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers) ignore rulings of the Courts and exceed the powers given to them by Congress, to pursue the President’s agenda.

Congress and the President need to work together to resolve the many serious problems facing our nation. However, we cannot allow our Constitutional form of government to be destroyed in the pursuit of short-term solutions. If we do, our experiment in democracy and self-government will quickly fail. I believe this is the great challenge currently facing our nation.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the issue is whether our nation of liberty and Constitutional government “can long endure” and whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

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