Despite erroneous claims to the contrary, the U.S. Constitution was created in order to increase — not curtail — the powers of our national government. The Articles of Confederation had already created a national government of quite limited powers, and both those supporting the proposed Constitution and those opposing it believed that the weak national government was insufficient to fulfill its purposes.
The important caveat was that there had to be some means of insuring that the new national government would not and could not abuse its increased powers, and this was the rationale for the creation of checks and balances in the form of what we have come to call the separation of powers.
Often misunderstood, this latter idea, James Madison wrote in Federalist 48, “does not require that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments should be wholly unconnected with each other.” Rather, he continued, “unless these departments be so far connected and blended as to give to each a constitutional control over the others, the degree of separation which the maxim requires, as essential to a free government, can never in practice be duly maintained.”
As presidential scholar Richard Neustadt famously stated, therefore, our system of separation of powers is in practice a system of shared powers in separate institutions. Presidents, senators and congressmen are elected by different constituencies for different terms of office, and federal judges are of course not elected at all, but rather nominated by the president with advice and consent of the Senate.
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Nevertheless, these independent branches of our federal government are actually interdependent in their operation. Recall the unusual character of a driver-education car: While the student driver controls the steering wheel and accelerator along with the brake, the instructor in the front passenger seat has a brake as well. The car can go nowhere unless the instructor releases that extra brake.
Likewise, while the president exercises most executive powers, Congress exercises most legislative powers and the courts exercise most judicial powers, no single branch can operate successfully unless the other two release their brakes on it.
Under this system of shared powers in separate institutions, however, checks and balances work only if government officeholders are willing to check and balance. And the rise of our political parties has modified their calculations in this regard.
Unmentioned in the Constitution, parties developed because the interdependence of such independent branches of government created the need for some way to bridge the institutional and geographical divisions among federal officeholders.
Every federal lawmaker is expected to have some institutional loyalty to his or her own branch — the House, the Senate, the presidency or even the federal judiciary. As Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Among elected officials, however, that creates a potential tension between loyalty to their party and loyalty to their institution.
When those officials give precedence to party over institution, however, then checks and balances do not check and balance. This holds true regardless of which party controls which institutions, and it holds true whether we consider the impeachment and acquittal of President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, or the allegations against President Donald Trump today.
The highest loyalty of any federal officeholder should thus be not to a political party, and not even to his or her branch of government, but to the Constitution itself. Let us insist that our federal officials always remember that. Partisan interest or advantage should never supersede the Constitution. We therefore must tell both our elected and non-elected federal officials: Check, please.
Dennis Goldford is chair of the Department of Political Science at Drake University.