THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION ON TRIAL, PART 2

The pride of the American Constitution is “checks and balances.” It is designed to assure that neither executive nor Congress is able to rule without the consent of the other. In Mr. Trump’s presidency, this balance of power is challenged.

However, checks and balances is not the Constitution’s only job. The country needs to be governed and the Constitution should provide for good governance. The duty of government, said George Washington, the first president, in his first inaugural address, is “the discernment and pursuit of the public good.”

It has become standard among observers of American politics that Washington is “dysfunctional.” The Constitution, then, is challenged not only in its ability to check power but also to provide governance.

The Constitution may well stand the test of Mr. Trump’s attempted power grab. That is not assured but is at least possible.

Whether it can be rebooted to do the job of providing good governance is more doubtful. The Washington system has been grinding into gridlock for a long time, and this problem is made more severe by the new chaotic presidency.

There is no single cause of Washington’s dysfunction. But one strong factor is the escalating power of money in political processes. The transgression of private money into democratic politics causes elected representatives to become beholden to the givers of money. American politics have become mega-expensive – actually have deliberately been made mega-expensive for the purpose of making money the ultimate political tool. Candidates and representatives cannot (mostly) hope to win or retain office without raising large amounts of money from sponsors. Sponsors are increasingly organised in PACs, super-PACs and otherwise. In this structure of sponsorship sits the power to decide who will be elected – those the money is willing to sponsor – and what policies they can promote and support when elected – those that are acceptable to the money. The result is Congressional gridlock. President Obama explained the problem with clarity in his final State of the Union Address: elected representatives are “trapped” by “black money” and not free to make policies for the public good.

The two main criteria of good governance are effectiveness and fairness. In a democracy in which money trumps votes, governance suffers on both criteria. There will not be necessary governance if it collides with organised monied interests. Such governance as there is, will be biased in favour of organised monied interests. You could not have a better description of Washington’s dysfunction.

While Congress is the institution to look to for the checking of presidential usurpation of power, the Supreme Court is the institution that needs shaking up to control the power of money. The Court has fallen under the spell of a bizarre theory according to which the giving of money to political cause is a form of expression of opinion and therefore protected by the freedom of speech clause in the Constitution’s 1st Amendment. It has accordingly chipped away at such limitations on the political use of private money as have existed in the American system. The Court the purpose of which is to protect American democracy is, by convoluted logic, presiding over its erosion.

How could the Supreme Court be checked? None other than Congress could do it. Is a dysfunctional and demoralised Congress, “trapped” by the workings of “black money,” going to take on the Supreme Court? Not likely.

THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION ON TRIAL, PART 1

The Trump presidency is testing the American Constitution. Mr. Trump is going about the business of being president in bizarre and troubling ways. He started by showing an intention to govern by presidential decree and issuing presidential orders right and left. That did not go well. Many of his orders were ill prepared, many have been of little consequence, some have been slapped down by the courts.

It should, however, have gone worse. He set out to govern without Congress as an equitable partner. Congress did react, for example by turning down his initial health care “reform.” But Congress as such has not stood up to a president who has tried to side-line and diminish it as an institution.

Then followed a parade of executive incompetence and irregularity – in appointments, in a failure to make appointments and fill essential posts, in stimulating internal demoralising and chaos in the White House and the broader executive branch, in the spreading of misleading and untruthful “information,” in the boastful leaking by the president himself of sensitive security information to a foreign adversary, in an attempt to make the FBI an instrument of the president personally, in the firing of the FBI director who refused to comply, in various presidential actions to interfere with and pervert the course of justice.

The constitutional system has not failed to react. Congressional committees are investigating possible wrongdoings by the president and his team. The Justice Department has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the same wrongdoings within a framework of criminal justice.

There should, however, have been more reaction. There is a power struggle going on. That struggle is for an imperial (if incompetent) presidency and against Congress. It is a messy and ugly power struggle, but unless the president’s usurpation of power is resisted, facts will be established on the ground and Congress will be further diminished. Congress has for years allowed itself to slip towards irrelevance. It is now as if a president with lust for power is exploiting Congress’s confusion about itself to govern unconstitutionally.

The pride of the American Constitution is “checks and balances.” It is designed to check the president so that he/she cannot attain despotic power. The framers assumed that presidents may incline to despotism and that such risks need to be controlled. It is possible, perhaps probable, that the Constitution will stand this test up against the kind of president the framers feared. But it is not assured. Mr. Trump has already lashed out against the Constitution itself as “archaic” and “a bad thing for the country,” and blamed it for the chaotic state of this presidency. A possible scenario is that Congress asserts itself to check the president, that the president takes this as an attack on himself and his mandate and fights back, and that the country is plunged into deeper constitutional crisis.

It is the responsibility of Congress to check the president. Congress may still do that. But so far, Congress has not risen above party politics to assert itself as an institution. Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are still allowing the president to hold the initiative and mainly responding strategically by what is expedient for their own standing and electoral prospects. That’s what members of Congress must do, but it is not all they should do.

When a president persists in ruling against rather than with Congress, a time comes when Congress must stand up and act as an institution with independent judgement that goes beyond political expediency. Whether Congress would so do, is for now an open question. It is today a weakened institution which may not be able to harness the necessary collective will. An unpalatable president may win the power struggle and prevail over a further diminished Congress.