Thursday, November 14, 2013

Our Seven Branches Of Government

The Constitution of the United States is a marvelous document.  Yet it is a document few Americans have actually read, even though many speak of it with authoritative certainty.  It is remarkable in the structure – and the underlying concepts – of our collective governance.  It is even more remarkable when one considers it in the light of its time – establishing a unique form of government without precedence and then unheard of throughout the world, yet crafted in only four months of meeting time.  But a most captivating aspect of this document is the very personal, all-too-human stories of the 55 men who went about this work.  Stories of their widely divergent individual opinions, their passion for those beliefs, yet their willingness and ability to reach for a greater, more over-arching unifying goal.  Then the follow-up story of the subsequent cliff-hanging, just-barely adoption of their work by the citizenry.  These stories deserve many retellings, but that is far beyond the scope of this small blog.

We all know from our school civics classes that our Constitution created three branches of government.  The Legislature branch (Congress) was divided into two parts, each defined in extensive detail – a legislature being the principal form of government previously known to the Constitutional creators.  The Executive branch (President) was spelled out next after much debate about what such a role should be, given that it was the first non-royal executive in a world filled with kings wielding near-absolute power.  Lastly established was the Judiciary branch (Supreme and lesser Courts), almost an afterthought about which little was said regarding its intended powers.  Its driving definition was to ensure that judges would be free from an overpowering President or Congress.

Among these three institutions, a whole series of operating conditions and interlocking techniques was instituted to ensure that no branch could operate independently, usurp the powers of another branch, or threaten the freedoms so recently obtain by the blood of the Revolutionary War.  These checks and balance intentionally make for slow decision-making and “inefficient” action by a government serving widely diverse people, but they effectively control the beast that could so easily run out of the control of the citizen population for whom it exists.  Cumbersome, but all very neat and tidy, openly visible and well defined.

Except that 225 years later, the actual reality is that we now have seven branches for our federal government.  With these added four, some are visible, some are not, many operate without restraint or approved “rules of the game” defined and adopted by the citizenry.  The world of governance has changed dramatically since 1789.

Ever since Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the Executive has been the dominate branch, replacing the traditional supremacy of the Legislature.  The vastness of this governmental bureaucracy can be overpowering as it seeks to fulfill an increasing public demand for services.  As a result, administrative procedures and regulations often surpass the intended primacy of legislative laws.  The two branches of Congress have each adopted procedural rules that make a mockery of our first Congress, and turn upside down the fundamental concept of “majority rules.”  The Supreme Court has become simply an extension of the legislative divisions and debate, with a continual series of 5-4 decisions between “liberal” and “conservative” judges – effectively surrendering its intended role as independent arbiters of truth and law, beholden to no political faction.

As messy and tangled up as our Constitutional government may have now become, the bigger threat to our commitment to representative democracy are the four de facto additional branches.  They were never envisioned by the Constitutional creators, yet they wield great (if not greater) power in what government decides and how it operates.

The new 4th branch is the “political party.”  These institutions showed up pretty quickly after the start of our government, groups of strongly opposing views whose in-fighting drove George Washington to exasperation.  Many political parties have come and gone over the years, often built around issue-specific agendas or charismatic personalities.  But for the last 150 years, the Republican and Democratic parties have dominated, albeit often with contrarian sub-wings (e.g. the old Dixiecrats; the current Tea Party).  Loyalty to Party, voting by Party platform, voting to promote the Party’s political standing and power, now often trumps voting by individual conscience or to fulfill constituent opinions and goals.  A committee chairman of the majority party and from another electoral jurisdiction often has far more influence over my life than does my own elected representative.  Representative democracy loses to selfish gains in political power.

The 5th branch is the army of paid lobbyists who camp on the doors of Congressional and/or Executive branch offices.  Highly paid, with plenty of campaign funds to distribute (directly or indirectly), they quietly, invisibly and highly effectively dictate what laws, what regulations, will be adopted.  All with a narrow and specific view of self-interest, not public interest, obtaining special favors or exemptions for their sponsors.  Special treatment not available to Mr. & Mrs. Public.  The Supreme Court may have demanded “one person, one vote,” but lobbyists ensure that not all voters count equally.

The 6th branch is the Communications industry.  Newspapers, magazines, newsletters, cable television news shows, internet news channels, individual blogs, and social media.  An avalanche of words beyond digestibility, more and more served up without factual or intelligent discrimination.  Reporters versus “commentators,” yet neither is bound to balanced perspective or “truth” except maybe by individual choice and personal ethics.  Minor celebrities are given major air time simply to feed the insatiable demand to fill the 24x7 news void, and to maximize revenues.  In the face of this onslaught, citizens are forced to pick their news, and they often pick the news that confirms what they already believe rather than hear the debate that shakes up and educates our deeper understandings.  In this splintering of our news, true information is lost and the emotional appeals of demagogues succeed.  “More” news has not proven to be “better” news.

The 7th branch is made up of the new political action committees (PACs).  Turned loose financially by the Supreme Court, these shadowy groups now spend virtually unlimited dollars to promote any one-sided cause or candidate that they choose.  Big dollars from a very small number of very rich people.  They fund negative ads that reduce broad, complicated issues to bumper sticker slogans.  They distort our knowing of the pertinent facts of these issues, and distort the conclusions that we draw.  A very select few disproportionally dominate “The Message,” adding little to public decision-making.  So far, to our credit, Americans have generally resisted being bought out by the big money.  Spending levels have not necessarily equated with electoral success.  But can Americans continue to resist these “temptations of the devil”?

We are a long way removed from the Founders’ concept of the citizen-politician who gives to public service and then returns to farm or business.  A long way removed from citizen control of their representatives, our direct connection to representative democracy.  Unfortunately, the very ones empowered to bring Constitutional reform and definition to these four additional branches of government are these seven branches themselves, each of whom has have no interest in reducing their role and influence (versus expanding it!).  Yet if not controlled, it is an influence that is far greater than the three branches our Constitution originally established.  If we as citizens are to effectively change this unchartered and unauthorized form of restructured government – and change it we must – it starts with full recognition and acceptance of the reality of what our form of government has actually become.  And it is a form that we were not taught in that civics class of long ago.

© 2013 Randy Bell