Monday, July 20, 2009

From the "Civics 101" file.

The basic notion is fairly widespread, but to snag an example from thin air, as it were, CNN's John King (h/t Fixer) sums it up pretty well…
You know, we had an election in November. What we thought we got was united government, a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. Instead it seems that we just have a different kind of divided government. You have a Democratic President that's fighting with wings of his own party in congress, including, this is from Democracy for America.
Sadly, the "we" that King is speaking for here is a pretty big group of folks. Sad because it demonstrates so well the widespread ignorance about the government created by the U.S. Constitution. Parliamentary governments already existed when the founders established the world's first constitutional democratic republic. The differences between our nation's government and those which preceded it were well considered and deliberate. The lack of constitutional provision for political parties was well considered and deliberate.

It was never intended that there be a government united along partisan lines in the United States of America. Our constitutional separation of powers depends on a measure of division between the executive and legislative branches of government, with the apolitical (in the sense that they are not directly responsible to a general electorate) branch established as the referee of such conflicts as might arise from the intentionally inherent tension. Each branch was granted areas of authority, some exclusive, some shared, some competing, some, on occasion, conflicting.

The inherent divisions go even deeper. While parliamentary governments may have bicameral legislatures, the so-called upper houses are often largely ceremonial chambers for nobility and elder statesman, with heavily circumscribed policy authority. The United States Senate was designed to be stronger, with it's own exclusive areas of authority and its necessary assent in the actions of the larger House of Representatives. Of course, the power of the purse is reserved to the presumably more representative and accountable members of the House. That alone, the ability of the lower house to economically strangle any initiative by the Executive or the Senate, creates the real nuclear option in American government and is, again, a point of division by design. (The only Speaker in my memory to have pushed that button was Newt Gingrich, and it didn't work out so well for him, but the button's still there. The House can close the public purse to any or everything.)

No, partisan zealot that I am, I don't expect the government to march in lock step to a party line simply because the party that supports Constitutional governance is in control of the political branches. In fact, because the Democratic Party is dominant in Washington D.C. at this time, I expect and applaud the fact that these divisions are appearing. I like Speaker Pelosi best when she aggressively defends the prerogatives of the House, and am most dismayed by Majority Leader Reid when he less assertive in defense of the authority of a Senate majority.

The separate branches should reflect the different interests of their varied constituencies. While the founders had hoped that the factions of their days might not harden into the parties of the present era, it is the Democratic Party that seeks to most closely realize that founding ideal by offering a political home to a broad cross-section of ideologies. As Democrats, we only require that those ideologies do not conflict with the central principle of a government conducted along Constitutional lines - a government, that is, of laws, rather than of men.

Men and women of varying ideologies representing various constituencies should reflect divisions, regardless of party affiliations. It's in the Constitution. The fact that every American hasn't learned this by the eighth grade, let alone by the time they become national broadcasters, is one of the more serious threats to our republic.

This concludes today's lesson.

(Fixer, by the way, takes this in another direction, leading to a post about corporate ownership of the machinery of government, root, branch and regardless of party. That's another of the more serious threats to our republic, and I commend his observations to you.)

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