Friday, December 18, 2009

Parties Thwart the Constitution

This little bit of arm-twisting by the executive branch is symptomatic of the failure of the federal government and its disdain for the Constitution.

Here's the problem: the founders of the Republic ditched the British parliamentary system (which is heavily dependent on political parties) in favor of a non-partisan checks-and-balance system comprising of three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The three are intended to spread power around and dilute the authority of any small cabal of men. The three branches should (in theory) work like a three-legged stool, a structure that is stable and balanced. Besides, the powers of the federal government were to be so small, and specifically enumerated, so as to deter any real incentive to seize power.

So far, so good.

The Constitution envisioned a Congress comprised of the representatives of the people (the House of Representatives) and the states (the Senate). Between the two of them, they are to prevent both judicial tyranny (by actually having a say over that which the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have jurisdiction over), as well as executive tyranny (by controlling the purse strings, passing laws, and declaring war - all keeping check over any over-aggressive president).

But something funny happened on the way to the forum. Soon after the Republic began to function, political parties made their re-appearance - albeit not in any official capacity. But in time, the legitimacy and power of the parties grew.

So, now the people are no longer represented by the legislature. Congress actually represents the two major parties - who themselves have a choke-hold on the process. The parties actually control such things as ballot access - making it all but necessary to join a major party in order to have a voice at the polls or to run for office. The parties are no longer private organizations, but tax-supported pseudo-governmental agencies (unrecognized by the Constitution) complete with a murky and highly bureaucratized elected and appointed structure that almost no American thinks about, or perhaps even knows about. At least the major parties are tax-run and in bed with the mechanism of the governmental apparatus. The minor parties are still private voting blocs. But then again, the goal of the minor parties is to become major parties.

One result is this: the legislature no longer speaks for the people. Congress will not stand up to a sitting president - especially if he is of the majority congressional party. If he is of the opposing party, Congress might oppose him, but only on partisan grounds - not out of branch loyalty. Typically, congressmen allow themselves to be dictated to by the administration, and meekly show up when the president "summons" them. And their motivation is one of political greed. Congressmen do not want a de-fanged presidency - because they all know that the next time at bat, it might be one of their own (or even one of them) sitting in the White House. They like an imperial presidency just fine - so long as it is their emperor in power or potentially in power.

So, what about the people? What about the states? Who?

The states are no longer represented by the Senate - thanks to the 17th amendment adopted in 1913 - the same year that brought us the unconstitutional Federal Reserve as well as the 16th amendment and income taxes. It is hardly a coincidence that this major revision of how the federal government operates was only four years before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and in the age when nationalism and fascism were both on the rise worldwide. This was the era when American school children actually saluted the flag with outstretched arms and downward facing palms. It was an odd time in history, a time of centralization and populism that ironically undermined the representation of the people in the long run.

And just as Congress does not want to push back against the executive branch (knowing that a powerful presidency is good for the parties), they similarly cower in the face of the Supreme Court. Rather than limit the power of the federal judiciary (as they are empowered to do by the Constitution), Congress plays along, with the parties trying to get their guy elected to the presidency so as to appoint members of the Supreme Court. Again, in the congressional mindset, there is nothing wrong with judicial tyranny, so long as their party gets to play the tyrant.

So, modern America is left with a mixture of more democracy and less republic, and at the same time, more fascism and less decentralized freedom. The states are largely impotent to check and balance the federal power in the way that the founders intended - although there is a renewed interest in the 10th amendment, states rights, interposition, nullification, and even secession. Besides, the same party hacks that run the federal government also run the state governments. A similar collusion occurs across those lines of power as across the branches of the federal government.

As it stands now, Congress is more loyal to the party in power, and no longer sees itself as an opposing force over and against the courts and the presidency, checking these potential tyrannies on behalf of the people and the states. That simply doesn't happen. They no longer even bother with the rhetoric.

There is a coziness between the branches that the founders absolutely did not want - and for good reason. Rather than check and balance one another, they horse-trade and play patty cake with each other. One branch winks and looks the other way while the other branch usurps power. The Congress turns the Nelson eye (or even applauds) when the presidents assume war-powers with no congressional declaration. Congress allows presidents of both major parties to abuse "signing statements" - turning what was once a fairly uncommon statement used to clarify the interpretation of a bill into a virtual (and now typical) dictatorial power to reinterpret congressional bills into something the branch supposedly representing the people did not draft - or maybe they did all along. There is so much collusion, who knows?

Until Congress begins to see itself as representing the people and the states over and against the other branches, they will continue to be lackeys with loyalty to party instead of to the electorate and of the original intent of the founders as inscribed in the Constitution.

Under the circumstances, if we're going to recognize political parties and make use of them in an official way, we might as well have kept the parliamentary system - including a king. We've basically been left with the worst of both worlds - a system as centralized and unresponsive to the people as a monarchy, but one in which the monarch might change every four years. We get the tyranny of monarchy without the stability.

And I believe that until the people of the United States begin to view all political parties, major and minor, with suspicion rather than cheering for them like the local college football team - the federal government will continue to abuse its powers and will continue to treat the Constitution as something to work around rather than the law to which they are bound to obey by duty to the people who elect them.


Larry said...

This seems, along with your earlier post on the cross being a scandal, to bring up the question of what is a legitimate government. Is every group with guns who control a bit of territory a legitimate government? If not, how can you tell if a group with guns that claims authority is a legitimate or illegitimate government? Are we required to obey illegitimate governments? Is there a set number of days, month or years they need to control some territory before they must be obeyed? Is there a certain amount of territory they must control? Can I be the government of my backyard if I keep people out with a gun? Was the continental congress legitimate in 1776? How about the confederacy in 1861? How about the Taliban in the areas of Afghanistan they still control? This has never made sense to me. I can't seem to make the Lutheran view of government work in the real world, maybe it made sense in feudal Europe where everyone seemed to be a vassal of someone else, but now? I'll admit I tend toward being a pacifist-anarchist because I can't make anything else make sense consistently.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Larry:

All excellent questions that are all much harder than they appear on first glance.

I don't know that there is a cut-and-dried answer, But at the same time, some degree of government is universal. Maybe government is like porn - we can't define it but we know it when we see it. :-)

I would think the legitimacy of government rests on some kind of consensus. How that is defined, I don;t know.

As far as the "Lutheran" view of government goes, it is really the teaching of Scripture. Lutherans often speak highly of the institution of government owing to Romans 13 - but this does not answer the question as to whether or not every soldier and every claim to legitimacy is valid. So we're kind of back to square one.

We can gain some insight also from Jesus - who in spite of the evils of the Roman Empire, neither advocated revolution nor blind obedience. When ordered by the legitimate governing authorities to cease preaching, St. Peter refused, saying "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). So there is a balance to be reached.

Some will say that any critique of government and its institutions is sinful. I disagree. Others claim that any and all acts of violence against all government is legitimate. I disagree with that as well. For some Lutherans, the American Revolution remains controversial. I disagree with them as well - as the "revolution" really was nothing other than a secession - which rests on the right to government by consent. There was no attempt to violently remove or harm King George.

And then there is the case of Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who tried to assassinate Hitler. The jury is still out among Lutherans!

Thanks for raising such an interesting idea!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

The judicial branch has become a bunch of lackeys, too, by appointment and by intimidation.

Matter of fact, under the last several presidents, the presidency itself has become an instrument of the powers that be. OPresidents are not in control; they do as they are told. Or as someone said, a president these days is a Trojan horse

Anonymous said...

You are so wise. Choosing between the Repulsican or Demoncratic choice is like a choice between oysters in a can or oysters in a jar. Who the heck said I wanted oyster?

Anonymous said...

Great posting! I catch glimpses of Madison from Federalist paper #10 on factions. The idea of a federal government was to stridently limit the number of factions with interests contrary to the rights of the whole. Instead what we have today are two major special interest groups (Republican and Democratic parties) which have taken over our house of lords (Senate) and house of commons (house).

Interestingly enough, congress was created to avoid large factions from controlling government. Madison (and the Federalists) believed that a republican form of government would help prevent the ability of the people from forming large parties in order to exert power over each other. Little did he know that "parties" themselves would become power brokers controlling who could be put before the people to vote over and who would enter their jobs representing a party platform and not their constituents.

Theophilus said...

This is an excellent analysis of what has gone wrong in our country.
We started out as a Republic, but we have become a Democracy. And every Democracy eventually ends up with a Tyrant.

George Wallace, who was my governor for many years, was correct when he said: "There is not a dime's worth of difference between The Democratic and Republican parties."

That is one reason why I am an "Unaffiliated" voter.

Paul said...

"A republic, Ma'am, if you can keep" -- Ben Franklin

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I was brought up on the teaching that to vote was my civic duty. It was a great honor and right and good citizenship required the exercise of it.

Well, yes. But voting for a crook is not my duty. And as they are all crooks, I'm minded not to vote at all any more. They've already taken my country; let them at least not do it with my endorsement.