The benefits of gridlock in government

The writers of the United States Constitution did not want a national government that would work quickly and efficiently. They chose instead to build a government with checks and balances that would limit the power of the government and slow its ability to interfere in the lives of American citizens.

Therefore, they divided the government into three branches: a legislative branch that can make laws but has no ability to enforce laws, an executive branch that enforces laws but does not make or overturn laws, and a judicial branch that interprets and applies laws and that can overturn laws—but only when asked to do so by one or more citizens. The legislative branch is further checked and balanced by two houses which must agree with each other to pass a law. In the Senate, each state is equally represented; but in the House, states are represented proportionally. Members of the House must seek reelection every two years, so its members are focused on short term problems and interests. Members of the Senate hold terms of six years, so they can take a longer view of things. Potentially, the entire House could be changed in one election, but a minimum of two-thirds of the Senators would still be in the Senate after such an election.

Even when the President and the majority of both houses of Congress come from the same political party, the President and Congress maintain an adversarial relationship because of their different powers and concerns. During the past seventy-two years, American voters have frequently chosen to have the President come from one political party while the majority of at least one house of Congress represents the opposition party. When Congress convenes in January, the country will be in that situation again, as President Trump comes from the Republican Party while the majority of the House of Representatives—chosen by this week’s election—come from the Democratic Party.

What does this mean for the government of the United States over the next two years? The best-case scenario is that Democrats and Republicans—including President Trump—learn to communicate and to compromise, working together for the good of the country and pleasing Americans of various political viewpoints. Given human nature, a more likely scenario is that both sides experience frustration, unable to accomplish their goals. Given their desire for limited government, the framers of the Constitution would likely prefer the second scenario.

On the other hand, President Trump thrives on conflict. The more grief the Democratic members of the House try to cause him, the more he will rattle their chains in return. Already in the first half of his term, President Trump has been able to demonstrate that he has tried to keep his campaign promises but Congress and the courts have hindered him. We can expect the President to continue to act as he has been acting for the past two years. The dire consequences that his opponents in politics and among news reporters have been predicting have not come close to happening. For the next two years, we can expect much of the same results.

The Democrats in Congress would be foolish to attempt an impeachment of President Trump during the next two years. No matter what evidence they uncover, they are unlikely to find enough to convince two thirds of the Senate to remove him from office. Meanwhile, the time and energy spent on that useless venture would be time and energy not spent on seeking their other goals. For that they would suffer in the 2020 election. Their best ploy is to seek to compromise with the President and give him the option of working with them or spurning them. In either case, they would gain more from a posture of compromise than they can ever gain from continual opposition. J.

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Balance of power

The chaos of Presidential primaries this year is a far cry from what the writers of the United States’ Constitution intended.

First, let’s skip the nonsense of asking whether the United States is a democracy or a republic. It can be both, and it is both. The United States is a republic because it has no hereditary leaders; it is a democracy because power rises from the people, who have the opportunity to choose their leaders. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all belonged to a party that called itself Democratic-Republican. Those three men (as any student of American history knows) had considerable influence and involvement in the formation of the United States government.

But the creators of that government did not trust the general population to make good choices. They feared that voters would be easily swayed by appeals to emotion rather than by good and responsible leaders. Therefore, the Constitution (as first written) allowed voters to choose the members of the House of Representatives but not members of the Senate. Senators were chosen by state governments until the twentieth century. As part of the balance of powers envisioned by the writers of the Constitution, Representatives serve two year terms, making them interested in immediate issues; but Senators serve six year terms, making them interested in longer term issues. The entire House of Representatives can change in a single election, but in any election no more than one third of the Senate can change.

The writers of the Constitution also did not trust voters to choose the President of the United States. Voters only choose electors from each state, and those electors then meet to choose a President. By Jefferson’s time, electors already were making their intentions known to the voters, so voters who favored one elector over another decided on the basis of how that elector promised to vote. In the general election in November, voters still will be choosing electors, but probably not one in a thousand voters will know the names of the electors they choose. They will be considering the candidates for President, not the candidates to meet together to choose the President.

The Constitution says nothing about political parties. Even though all the Presidents after George Washington have been members of a party, even Jefferson and Madison were at first opposed to party politics. By 1800 the first political parties had been formed in the United States, and ever since that time parties have selected candidates to be presented to the voters in the November general election.

Even then, primaries were not used to winnow the field of candidates. Leaders of the parties gathered in convention to select candidates for the highest offices and to form platforms (statements of the political positions of the party). Even in the middle of the twentieth century, few states held primaries to choose among candidates for President. The cliché of the “smoke-filled room” in which a few influential men decided what choices would be offered to the voters was, at that time, still a reality. Politicians decided to change the process leading to the nomination of a candidate for President after the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. In that convention, notorious for its disorder, Hubert Humphrey won his party’s nomination without having placed first in a single primary election. By 1972, both the Republican and Democratic parties had designed a new system in which the voters of the various states had a larger voice in determining which candidates would be nominated by the major parties.

The winnowing process has begun, as a few men and women travel around the country, seeking approval from the voters. Some states have caucuses and others have elections; some states bar voters who have not previously declared a party loyalty, others allow a voter to declare a party loyalty while receiving a ballot. Millions of dollars are spent by candidates and their committees advertising in every forum, hoping to get the attention of voters, and hoping eventually to get votes. In their speeches and on their web sites, all the candidates announce what they hope to do if they are elected President of the United States. Yet when an informed voter hears those speeches and reads those web sites, he or she might wonder whether or not the candidates are familiar with the United States Constitution.

The writers of the Constitution did not trust the voters, but they also did not trust the government. In various ways they worked to balance the government so that changing the laws would be difficult. All the states have equal representation in the Senate but proportional representation in the House, and most major decisions must be approved by both bodies. This prevents large states from dominating all the decisions without giving overwhelming power to the small states. The President cannot propose laws; only a member of Congress can propose a law, and then Congress discusses and debates the proposed law before voting whether or not to approve it. The President can sign the law, but only if Congress has approved it. If the President disagrees with the law and refuses to sign it, the President may veto the proposed law; but the two houses of Congress can overturn the veto by a supermajority.

Nearly all the promises being made during the primary elections by the candidates concern laws that can only be made by the Congress. A candidate might make glowing promises to win votes, but without the action of Congress, those promises are only empty words. According to a political theory first proposed by European philosophers but first tried in the United States, government is limited by having a legislative branch that creates laws but cannot enforce them, an executive branch that enforces laws but cannot make them, and a judicial branch that interprets laws and can overturn them, but only when a citizen opposes a law and has brought it to the courts—often by intentionally breaking that law.

A candidate for President should promise to do the job of the President. This includes being Commander in Chief of the armed forces, representing the United States to other nations, and using the power of the executive branch to enforce the laws made by Congress. Voters who want to see changes in the laws of the United States—such as changes in the tax code, more benefits for the poor, or different immigration policies—need to pay attention to the candidates for the United States Senate and the House of Representatives rather than to the candidates for President.

For this reason, Abraham Lincoln was the only notable President after Andrew Jackson and before Theodore Roosevelt. Generally in the nineteenth century, Congress did what the legislative branch was supposed to do and the President did what the executive branch was supposed to do. For a number of reasons, Americans began to pay more attention to their Presidents in the twentieth century. As a result, people who wanted to be elected President began to make more promises to the voters, even though they knew that they would not have the power to keep those promises if they were elected.

It matters who is elected President of the United States this fall. It matters who the major parties nominate this summer. It matters because the next President will represent the United States to the other countries in the world. The President will oversee foreign policy. The President will be in charge of the armed forces. The President will approve or veto laws passed by the Congress. Those who vote in the primaries this winter and spring had best consider which candidate will best perform in those roles, not which candidate can make the most inspiring and generous promises. J.