(Editor’s note: This is the first segment in a new multi-part series which begins here today. …)
The Founding Fathers’ plan for the new central government is nearly flawless. The power of the government derives from the people and is distributed to three equal but independent authorities. The legislative branch is to make the nation’s laws. The executive enforces them. And the judiciary interprets their legality. By a system of checks and balances, each authority a check on one or both of the others, a separation of powers virtually ensures that no one individual citizen or branch can amass inordinate status.
Many thorny political issues which simply cannot be foreseen will arise in the future. But the US Constitution is a remarkably flexible undertaking. It is said to be a living, breathing, organic document that is built to stand the tests of time that have befallen the noblest efforts of bygone eras. And despite the predictions of European cynics who consistently predict its demise, the great American experiment in democracy now well into its third century remains a remarkable success by any reasonable measure.
But with praise aside, 21st century
America society is not akin to utopia
on earth. Ordinary citizens complain
through hardened experience that what was once a land of opportunity is now
hardly recognizable as such. While
excuses abound, explanations are not simple.
At present, wealth concentration in the hands of the privileged few is
at a higher point than at any time in our nation’s history. Wealth concentration and monopolistic tendencies do foreclose opportunity.
The numbers tell a chilling story. The 400 richest Americans today possess more wealth than the bottom half of the
population (150+ million) combined. This
primary economic factor is morally indefensible. It is apparent that our economic system is
failing to provide a fair shot for the many, confounding us from completing our great unfinished business. As a
result, American society is plagued with unrest, imbalance and disharmony.
How did we arrive here is a key question. And can it be fixed? In order to answer these questions fully, we must trace the root cause of society’s unrest to the beginning.
In the Founding Fathers’ vision, the three branches of government are created equal. But in reality each branch is hardly considered to be on an equal footing.
The Founding Fathers’ familiarity with the British parliamentary system places the legislative branch at the helm of the ship, setting the national course. Indeed, the Founding Fathers design a sophisticated steering mechanism, meant to be operated by the legislative authority, or Congress. Execution of the plan depends upon Congress to steer the ship by the making of laws for the public good in its sole and ultimate discretion.
By contrast, the executive branch is viewed as little more than a puppet of Congress, although George Washington places a distinctive stamp on the office. In reality, the power of the so called President is virtually non-existent. The executive acts merely as a rubber stamp of the proposed legislation passed on to it by Congress. The executive “veto” power provided for in the Constitution dare not be exercised.
And as for the poor judiciary branch, nobody really seems to know, or care, what the proper function of that branch is actually supposed to be. Considered the weakest of the three branches, the authority of the judiciary to interpret the Constitution is not yet clear. Exactly zero cases are decided by the US Supreme Court in its first 18 months of its existence. So lightly is the Court regarded and slight its prestige that when the government moves from
to its new home in in 1800, no provision is made
for it to be housed. Neither is money
provided nor plans drawn up. Washington,
Andrew Jackson later changes the conception of the executive branch in a high profile manner, putting the executive on an equal footing with Congress. Similarly, John Marshall defines the judicial branch, establishing itself as the arbiter of constitutional authority and affirming the Constitution as an instrument of the people. Under
leadership, the Court is molded into a major force.
As the power and stature of the executive and judiciary authorities increase over time, the legislative branch, in turn, begins a slow yet precipitous decline. Ominous warnings sounded by such distinguished citizens as Benjamin Franklin go unheeded. And so the wounds to the legislative authority are largely self-inflicted, in a decline that can be foreseen. As a result, the ship’s steering mechanism is damaged and fractured, with no accountable authority setting navigational direction. Disharmony becomes the rule.
In the second segment we identify and begin to analyze the specific causes of legislative decline which lie at the heart of early 21st century unrest.