The United States Constitution was established by the newly liberated America with the intention of resisting centralised power and the rise of a tyrannical authority. Influenced by Enlightenment thought and a mistrust of government, the Framers conceived of a new constitutional system which rested on discrete powers designated to three essential government functions; legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
Over time, the resultant federal separation of powers has been successful in establishing a self-monitoring system, which has constrained the power of the State right throughout America’s history. However, with the continuous expansion of the nation and the changing conditions brought about through globalisation, this system of checks and balances is no longer completely effective.
America’s institutional fragmentation has evolved into a constrained and contorted system, which results in clashes between the branches of government and produces ebbs and flows of unchecked power. The overlay of a highly competitive two-party system serves to aggravate these flaws, with the largely unintended consequences of limited progress and a tendency of the parties to submit to interest-group influence.
By way of response, history has shown that the executive branch is capable of serious encroachment of congressional authority. As a consequence, the modern day president is subjugated to heightened scrutiny from both Congress and the Supreme Court.
George W. Bush, for example, never experienced the decisive congressional majorities that could support consistent partisan policies and reforms, and accordingly his era was punctuated by varying dynamics of inter-branch relations. The Bush Administration consequently dealt with legislative stagnation by responding to the events that defined the era with a highly autocratic executive style. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent “War on Terror” remain the most significant examples of overreach of executive authority in the new century.
The consequences of the Bush administration’s autocratic executive style have been played out strongly throughout the Obama years, with an evident power shift towards Congress. Evidence of this shift include the 2012 presidential-congressional stalemate on how to overcome the debt crisis, whereby the Republican Party refused to pass any policy involving higher tax rates for the very richest Americans. Further, on health care the House voted 54 times without success in repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Domestic power relations even interfere with the nation’s foreign policy. On the global stage, the ramifications of the separation of powers have impacted the credibility and influence of US foreign policy - the most significant contemporary example being the controversy surrounding the Iran Nuclear Deal.
This dynamic is damaging to the State at a time when America needs to adapt to the changing global conditions, specifically with regards to the enduring situation in Syria and Iraq.
The Bush and Obama Administrations - which have vetoed twelve bills (with four overturns) and four bills, respectively - have comparatively withheld their constitutional check on the legislative branch. Despite this, the 112th and 113th congresses have been the least productive in history, an outcome that can ultimately be explained by the “hyper-partisanship” that has punctuated congressional politics since the end of Bush’s second administration.
It seems as though the two-party system, compounded by the constitutional separation of powers, has become a procedure for gridlock in contemporary American federal politics.
The second Obama administration has executed an intentionally bolder style of governance in response to its early clashes with Congress. Obama has refused to negotiate the debt ceiling; bypassed the legislative process; and threatened to exercise his veto power on key issues such as immigration reform.
Whilst the Framers’ objective to prevent any one branch from unilaterally controlling the State has been broadly achieved, the system facilitates the rise and fall of institutional power, perpetuating a fluctuation between a stagnated government and serious power encroachments. The Founding Fathers’ mistrust of government, and its subsequent entrenchment in the Constitution, has developed into an imbalanced federal system of failed checks and infringements of authority. As this dynamic continues to impact both domestic and international politics, autocracy emerges as the enabler for progress.
Chloe Meyer is an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne, completing a degree in Islamic Studies and International Politics. In 2016, Chloe will be interning in the United States’ Congress under Republican Representative, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Image credit: Phil Roeder (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)