Separation of Power and the Thwarting of New Majorities

Separation of Power and the Thwarting of New Majorities

The new Republican congressional majority, rejoicing in its return to control of both houses (they last had such control during the 109th Congress, 2005-2006), is busily passing legislation to put its stamp on the 114th Congress early. The Keystone XL pipeline bill, which takes the approval process out of the hands of the various departments (in particular, the State Department), is but one of a number of initiatives reflecting the Republican backlog of desired bills and their determination to move forward.

Of course, control of Congress is not the same thing as control of the federal government.

He may be a lame duck, but Barack Obama is still President Obama . . . and he’s still a Democrat . . . and he’s still determined to pursue priorities of his own and of his party.

So on Keystone, as on other matters, President Obama seems likely to exercise his veto power. Indeed, it seems likely that President Obama will veto more legislation in the next two years than he has in the previous six.

It is a popular rhetorical game, especially shortly after an election flips control of the House, or the Senate, or the Oval Office, to assert that “the people have spoken” and that bucking the will of the newly elected office holders/party is tantamount to being undemocratic.

Actually, in a strictly literal sense, that might well be a valid claim.

But we don’t have that kind of democracy.

We don’t have a system of government in which one house of the legislature effectively rules the roost, while the other performs merely ceremonial functions and meaningless debates. We also don’t have a system in which gaining control of the legislature automatically secures control of the executive. Then there’s the independent judiciary, with the power to declare acts of both the Legislative and Executive branches unconstitutional and therefore null and void. Getting control of that is a truly long-term undertaking.

Yup . . . what we have, in truth, is a system of government that is designed to thwart the expressed will of the majority in the short run. That way, the ship of state continues on a relatively steady course. It takes a full two elections cycles or more to turn the ship around.

That was the plan from the beginning.

We can hate it or love it, be grateful for it (when it keeps the ship cruising in the direction we like, even as our party’s fortunes wane) or chafe against it (when our resurgent majority party still can’t get sole control of the ship’s wheel), but we’d best recognize it and deal with it.

So to my Republican friends I say, be patient. There are things you will be able to get done, because the president won’t want to veto everything that comes to his desk. President No is not the image I believe he has for himself (another legacy, in part, of his community organizer days).

But the big stuff will have to wait another couple of years . . . at least.

Meanwhile, to my Democratic friends, I say, be grateful for this interlude in which the policy forces set in motion will continue in motion even as the tide may be reversing. But don’t assume that course will remain unaltered on momentum alone.

Our Founders, for better or worse, were generally conservative folks. If the people have not made a firm decision to go in a new direction, they appear to have reasoned, best to keep on keeping on as we were, with adjustments being marginal at most. Only when the American people come together with a solid, persistent majority sentiment that we need to go in a new direction will we actually go there.

I’ll guess we’ll find out in 2016.