Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government


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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

Civility and Powers

March 8, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

“Civility” has been a word to conjure with for the past few weeks. Since the terrible killings and woundings in Tucson, Americans could hardly open a newspaper or turn on a television without someone shouting at us most uncivilly in the name of civility. In the name of making us all friends, “civility” is wielded as a cudgel would be wielded against hated enemies. The word is deployed as a weapon, the way “bipartisanship” has sometimes been deployed in the service of the most narrow and unseemly partisanship.

Citizens’ eyes roll and glaze over at such unserious and trumped up scolding. But civility is a serious theme. We want civility in our civil discourse because, in the language of the founders, we want reason and not passion to govern our affairs. We insist that we will be ruled by the consent of the people, and we are aware at the same time that the people can become a mob. And so, as the last letter observed, we have devised “constitutional ways of constructing and shaping the authoritative consent of the people” so that the “cool and deliberate sense of the community” might prevail in our political deliberations.

Among the constitutional devices intended to help achieve this difficult and desirable result, separation of powers ranks high. This idea, “that the legislative, executive and judiciary departments ought to be separate and distinct,” is (let us hope!) familiar to every American eighth grader; let us even be so immodest as to say that it is an essential American contribution to the advancement of constitutional governance.  Separation of powers was so important to the founders that they thought, in James Madison’s words, that “[t]he accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” But I won’t rehearse here what (I trust) we all have learned on the subject from fondly remembered grammar school teachers.

In the spirit of renewed attention to the Constitution that distinguishes this Congress, I will hope merely to observe something that may not be quite so obvious and may have a bearing on Congress’s response to current challenges. Put simply, in our Constitution the branches are separate, but they are not equal: the vast preponderance of federal authority is delegated to Congress, which is without question the preeminent branch under the Constitution.  One reason this may not be as obvious as it should be just by reading the Constitution is that, over the last fifty years, the separation of powers has tilted a bit out of constitutional balance. The presidential and judicial branches have become assertive and bold in articulating the national agenda, and Congress has largely deferred to this (or to the bureaucracy), sometimes in an effort to avoid difficult or potentially unpopular actions. Think of the fact that we call the recent historic elections “midterm” elections, as if Congress is a sideshow and the Presidency is the main event.

In our Constitution, Congress is the main event, and our separation of powers will serve us better if Congress is not as deferential as it has become accustomed to being (whether to the executive, the judiciary, or the bureaucracy). Let Congress reassert the lawmaking preeminence and responsibility intended for it in the Constitution–initiating constitutional conversations, setting out an agenda which is not necessarily the President’s or the Court’s, overturning what the members may consider to be the wayward actions of the other branches–and our constitutional deliberations as a whole will benefit.

I hasten to add, lest “irrational exuberance” seize the day, that when Congress acts boldly and takes the legislative initiative the Constitution intends for it to take, members should do so on behalf of their constitutional duty and not for mere party advantage, and they (and we) should hope and expect to find that the executive branch and the judiciary will rise to resist any assertions that seem to them unacceptable, behaving just as is intended in the Constitutional design. This proper functioning of the separation of powers (aided by the checks and balances within Congress) is meant to impede the misuse of Congressional power. We and Congress will display a kind of constitutional wisdom and patience, I think, if we recognize that the power to resist misuses of Congressional power is also a power that might on occasion thwart the necessary and proper uses of Congressional power.

More generally speaking, if separation of powers is designed to impede the rash introduction of radical change, it also has the effect of making it difficult to undo such change. If this Congress thinks it is its duty to do just that, let it act and give its reasons. It will meet resistance, and we all should expect that reasons will be given in turn. This is our Constitution at work. Citizens should anticipate serious argument, not just about policies, but about rights and duties, about the powers of government and limitations on those powers.  We should all learn from this, and all of this, of course, takes time.  And if our elected representatives can’t sort it out, then the people, through the ballot box, will speak again, and a new constitutional deliberation, possibly with different participants, will begin.

A final word:  No constitutional devices like separation of powers–none of these “inventions of prudence,” as Publius called them–will bring civility or cool and deliberate reflection from a nation of savages. So our broader constitutional deliberations should include not just civility but all the virtues, capacities, and principles that must shape the character of a people if they mean, as we do mean, to be self governing. Among the themes to include in these deliberations is the civic friendship, the care for one another, even in our millions, that could not be missed when the news of the Tucson tragedies spread across the land.

Ohio Farmer