On my European excursions I’ve made it a habit of flipping through newspapers from Germany, Britain, and the good old U.S. of A. Lately and maybe belatedly, I’ve been struck by the sheer mendacity of politics on both sides of the pond. I don’t mean nasty little lies, fed by ambition (“I didn’t wipe my server; it’s the cleaning girl’s fault”), nor any of the stuff that earns you Pinocchios in the Washington Post. I mean deliberate falsehoods that are central to the operation of government—the “regime,” as Straussians are wont to say.
To gauge how carefully they have read Federalist 10, I often ask students on what constitutional institutions Madison relies to solve the problem of majority factions. It’s a trick question, the last refuge of the professor. The answer is none. Madison reaches the end of the essay, proclaiming a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government,” without mentioning the Constitution, a Bill of Rights or, significantly, the courts.
That has not dissuaded advocates of an assertive judiciary from quoting Madison on the “mischiefs of faction” to support their cause. The most recent is Evan Bernick of the Institute for Justice, who, at the Huffington Post, has taken my post on judicial restraint to pointed task. “Professor: Who Needs Judges?” the headline announces. “Let’s Put Our Constitutional Rights to a Vote.”
“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, that was built in such a logical way, it ran a hundred years to the day?” If you haven’t, you’ve missed one of the most amusing poems of the nineteenth century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s splendid satire of the American constitution. Shays or carriages break down, said Holmes, when one joint is stronger than the next. “There’s always somewhere a weakest spot, … and that’s the reason, beyond a doubt / A chaise breaks down but doesn’t wear out.” And so the Deacon built a carriage that wouldn’t break down because each part was a strong as the rest. On and on the carriage went, until 100 years from the day it was made it all turned into dust. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay, logic is logic, that’s all I say.”
The poem was written three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the defects of a logical constitution seemed all too apparent to Holmes’ fellow Bostonians. Not that the Framers were logicians, of course. They were almost all practical politicians and simply strove to give us something better than what they had had.
The political puritans who control most editorial boards will doubtless mourn the tragically short life of the ardently sought détente between the White House and the ascendant Republicans in Congress. The good-government words were trotted out the day after the election—cooperation; grease the Capitol’s rusted legislative skids; we can hold hands to pass legislation and sing folk songs while we do—only to collapse under the President’s threat of unilateral action on immigration. Good. The good-government shtick—let us, said the President, “explore where we can make progress”; Mitch McConnell chimed in that “maybe there are things we can agree on to make progress for the country”—was nonsense to begin with.
In an exceptionally important article, Chris DeMuth addresses the deep pathologies of our politics. Chris has written extensively about the fateful drift into executive government, which (he cogently explains) is also a debt-ridden and lawless government (see his website here). In this piece, he tackles a principal institutional cause of those tendencies: for Congress, legislation has become an unnatural act, to be performed only in extremis. Thus, a constitutional revival will require a cultural revival. Recovering Congress’s lost powers will require relearning legislative skills, redirecting legislators’ energies, and risking the ire of party constituencies who are unfamiliar with the obligations of…
The syllogism by which healthcare deadlines may be deferred against laws, recess appointments made without recesses, and international agreements negotiated sans treaties runs as follows: The national government is empowered to pursue the public interest. The power of the national government is vested in the person of the President. Therefore, the President is empowered to pursue the public interest.
It is a close contest which recent assertion of executive authority crowns the rest, but the Administration’s potential skirting of the Senate’s treaty power in negotiating an international agreement on climate change ranks high in the running. The Constitution’s explicit partnering of the Presidency and the Senate in binding the nation in global agreements, combined with the two-thirds majority needed in the upper chamber of Congress to affirm them, points to the unique dangers of cutting one institution out of the process. President Obama is not the first to do this.
Routing a political dispute to the courts is the constitutional equivalent of appealing to one’s parents for relief from mistreatment by the bully on the block. How about throwing some weight instead?
Senator Ron Johnson’s fists are stuffed in his pockets as he runs across the Capitol Plaza to the pillared edifice where parental figures in black robes dispense constitutional wisdom evidently inaccessible to the rest of us. The Wisconsin Republican is suing President Obama over the administrative agreement that protects members of Congress and their staff from the legal requirement—which, by the way, was the product of asinine posturing, but which is also, you know, law, which you can tell because it bears the President’s signature—that they purchase insurance on the Obamacare exchanges.
The brilliant light that burst over the Northwest quadrant of the nation’s capital Thursday was not a sunrise. Illuminating the skies above the White House was the light bulb of discovery, in this case of an antiquated constitutional ideal: the separation of powers. The NSA metadata program having been authorized by Congress, the President announced plans to seek its reform by Congress. He is to be commended for involving the legislative branch of government in a decision involving, well, legislation.
President Obama and his advisors have told us that he can work around a purportedly obstructionist Congress by using what they claim is legitimate executive authority exercised by “pen and phone.” The phrase is meant to put across the idea that the president can get things done by signing off on various formal and informal executive initiatives, and cajoling Americans within government and without to act according to his vision. White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer, who is credited with inventing the phrase, recently explicated its meaning by observing that in an era of divided government, a Democratic president cannot easily get his way when Republicans control Congress. In order to “move the ball forward” on the president’s agenda, the deployment of “executive power” is required, according Pfeiffer.