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Is there a ‘Structural Design’ that leads to Federal gridlock?

May 24, 2014

The President recently complained that the Founding Fathers created a flawed system – one where California and Wyoming have the same number of Senators – that prevents him from enacting his agenda.  While  he certainly is right that states have equal representation in the Senate, he misreads the intent in creating the system the way it is as a design defect. Our system is designed to kill bad ideas, to be slow enough that, while the majority does indeed rule, the minority in any debate gets its say and has its rights respected.   The idea of treating states as equals is rooted in the concept of ‘dual sovereignty,’ the idea that the Federal government is supreme in the spheres of action that the Constitution – ratified by the states – leaves to it (war, printing money, trade, diplomacy, et cetera) while the states exercise sovereign power in their areas of responsibility (education and law enforcement, for example; in the latter instance, the Constitution names only three Federal crimes – piracy, treason and counterfeiting – with about 90% court action to this day being on matters of state or local jurisdiction).

(The Founders’ desire to create a system aimed at stopping bad ideas from becoming law is also the reason behind the filibuster – one Senator can stop  the machinery of the Senate for as long as he can hold the floor and speak.)

Finally, the Senate’s ability to roadblock legislation – collectively or individually – is part of our system of checks and balances, again, a product of the  Founders’ desire to prevent tyranny by stopping bad laws from being enacted.  Each branch of the Federal government is co-equal and can check the others.  This is an idea fitting for an elementary civics lesson and one, no doubt, learned, but perhaps forgotten in the heat of battle, by those who complain about the process derailing their legislative timetables.  This is not the first time such sentiments have been expressed – Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated with the Supreme Court ruling parts of his ‘New Deal’ unconstitutional, wanted to pack the Court with six additional justices who would be friendly to his agenda.  Even though his party was dominant in Congress at the time (1937) he proposed this, they balked at an idea that would have undermined the balance of institutional power in Washington, D.C.

Finally, one may see in the following a succinct explanation of how our system works, and works best, by stopping bad ideas from becoming law: No bill is truly law until it passes the House, the Senate, gets signed by the President, withstands court challenges and is enforced by a jury.  Our system is certainly not perfect, and each of the checks and balances in it may be misused for evil or illicit purposes, but our system has given the United States a quarter-millennium of generally stable government, rising living standards and greater freedom – no mean accomplishment, and, insofar as it touches upon our Constitution – no accident (or ‘design flaw’), either.



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