Watching the branches of government at work today, I reflected: Did our founders design Congress to function as it is today? Historically, the executive branch and the judicial branch of government are relatively unchanged. It is our Congress that has morphed into something that little resembles what the original framers had in mind.
So what has changed?
The Founding Fathers designed three branches of government that by their nature held a balance of authority to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. Their main focus was on restricting the executive branch from becoming another monarchy, which Americans had so recently fought a war over. As a result, the framers in 1787 invested most of the Constitutional Convention’s time and more than half of the document itself to debating and shaping the legislative branch. By contrast, the role of the president was less important.
Article II of the Constitution defined the presidency as a one-person office requiring minimal qualifications, to be elected by a detached body of electors spread across the entire nation. This president would have specified roles, among them veto power and leadership of the military.
Congress, not the executive or judicial branches, received the most extensive attention. The jurisdiction to make law was viewed as the most powerful tool a government body could possess.
So one might ask, what happened to the concept of our founders’ Congress? James Coll writes in The Hill that House Speaker Paul Ryan visits with President Donald Trump on a regular basis about congressional issues. Ryan, who openly criticized Trump during his campaign, declared shortly after the 2016 election that Republicans needed to “hit the ground running as we join forces with the new Trump administration.” This concept of Congress gaining the favor of the sitting president is diametrically opposed to our founders’ view of the separation of powers.
Most alarming may be Congress’ self-imposed inability to govern today. There has been a systemic shift from the serving “the people themselves,” in the words of James Madison, to focusing more on internal party bickering and self-serving survival through soliciting funds from wealthy benefactors who buy favor with their donations.
Today, overwhelming majorities of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle readily yield their constitutional powers to advance party interests at the expense of protecting the institution. Congress has transformed from governing the people and debating constitutional issues to unbridled loyalty to their individual parties, special interest groups, or both.
These groups and lobbyists hold Congress at bay on issue after issue. The more controversial the subject, it seems the less Congress will act.
One of the most politically influential lobbyists is the National Rifle Association. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA contributed more than $419 million supporting sympathetic candidates in 2016. In addition, the NRA shelled out $37 million campaigning against candidates who were not in lockstep with the group.
We have endured multiple mass shootings in recent years — Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Sutherland Springs, Texas; Las Vegas; Parkland, Fla. Each shooter was armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
Polls make it clear that a majority of Americans want limits on AR-15s and expanded background checks for gun buyers. Debate over legislation has stalled. There is no better example of a conflict between public opinion and power politics.
Nathan Pippenger put it well in the journal Democracy: “Thoughts and prayers are normal human responses to senseless suffering, but when they are not combined with steps which are very much within our power, they become a hollow, even perverse, incantation.”
If Congress is not willing to take action on an issue that the electorate is clearly demanding, what is left?
A body that the original framers would not recognize: allegiance to partisan politics, governed through corporate and individual greed. We the people are left with no real representation.
Jack Scammahorn is a retired teacher, coach and administrator.