Relations with Russia may or may not be, as the President said, at an “all-time and very dangerous low”—the Cuban Missile Crisis called and wants its ominous superlatives back—but the good news is that constitutional conflict is at a recent high. Congress is acting as independently as it has in a long time, including periods of split partisan control.
Look behind every major legislative success the U.S. Senate has had in recent years and you will find a small group of senators who negotiated quietly in private. Working under the supervision of party leaders, these groups are tasked by the collective, explicitly or implicitly, with resolving difficult issues, writing legislation, and helping to structure the process by which the Senate considers important bills.
They resemble scrums in rugby. They are highly competitive, also decisive (eventually), and also opaque to anyone outside of them—which happens to be most everybody.
Something’s rotten in the state of our nation, and if you think that “something” goes beyond the election of our current President, David Schoenbrod has written a book meriting your attention. Indeed, if you think all would be well had Donald Trump been denied the White House, you especially need to read DC Confidential: Inside the Five Tricks of Washington.
The particular genius of Marbury v. Madison was John Marshall’s act of jujitsu. President Jefferson wanted William Marbury kept off the federal bench and let it be known he would defy any Supreme Court order to the contrary, so Marshall delivered that outcome while seizing the larger prize of judicial review. Two centuries on, President Jefferson’s successor Donald Trump is reduced not to defying the Court but rather to tweeting ruefully that the judiciary’s consideration of his travel ban is “slow and political.”
Regardless of where people are on the political spectrum, many Americans—in fact most—believe that something is gravely wrong with the political system today. According to a recent report from Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans are frustrated with the federal government. Similarly, popular trust in government is near historic lows. The Pew survey found that only 16 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing “most of the time.” A paltry 4 percent of respondents reported trusting the government to do the right thing “just about always.”
Our Constitution makes Congress the first branch of government, but the Capitol is today regarded almost as a house of ill-repute, both for the character of its members (not necessarily ours, but theirs) and its general contribution (or lack thereof) to the national well-being. As a legislature, its primary means of asserting itself must be to pass legislation, but it has become infamously inept in that work in this age of severe polarization and powerful interest groups happy to block changes to a status quo they find lucrative. Given the apparent permanency of these underlying factors, many observers now see the waning of Congress’s importance as both inevitable and unequivocally desirable.
James Madison famously sketched an invisible-hand theory of institutional competition in The Federalist No. 51.
The case of Washington v. Trump—in which a panel of the Ninth Circuit expressed apparent sympathy, during Tuesday’s arguments, for a district judge’s restraining order against the President’s pause on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries identified as terrorism threats—has less to do with an overreaching judiciary than with an underperforming Congress.
The American people have learned much about the Electoral College since the November election. Much has been learned about the origins, evolution and contemporary functioning of our system of presidential elections. We have debated the merits of our system versus allowing a simple national popular vote. We have seen an unprecedented campaign to try to get electors to vote against their pledge. And some have tried to instruct us on the nuances of the Founding environment that created our unique electoral system.
But among all the good information and honest debates have arisen a misleading half-truth aimed at undermining the Electoral College.
Law professor Paul Finkelman ominously opines that Americans would be “disgusted” if they knew the real origin of the Electoral College was in protecting slavery.
One of the signal achievements of Bertrand de Jouvenel was establishing the existential status of power: “The Minotaur,” he called it, a metaphysical entity, nearly organic, with an instinct for both survival and expansion. If Mark Tushnet’s overeager call, predicated on a Hillary Clinton presidency, for judges to emerge from what he alleged to be their “defensive crouch liberal constitutionalism” and slay the foes of Progressivism demonstrated anything, it was that there is, miracle of miracles, such a creature as a judicial Minotaur. Randy Barnett’s much discussed and certainly much warranted reply at The Volokh Conspiracy confirms it. Yet the judicial Minotaur…