Current Political Culture Undercuts Separation of Powers

The nascent Trump presidency is a veritable labyrinth comprised of twisting scandals and the pitfalls of internecine quarrels. Yet, the true crisis of modern government is missing from the gossip-driven scandalmongering that has become the exclusive domain of the daily news cycle.

This is the clear lack of understanding from many members of the media and high-ranking members of the Republican leadership that the legislative and executive branches are separate and, most importantly, coequal branches of government. To be fair, this is not an issue exclusive to the Trump administration. Dysfunction between the branches has long existed. Prominent examples of total disregard for the high walls erected by the clauses of the Constitution include the repeal of the 17th Amendment, which made Senators popularly elected and abrogated the ability of states to have a voice in government, and, of course, the massive seizure of government power by the executive branch in the Progressive era, a feat made possible by Congress ceding their own role and a ridiculously overbroad interpretation of the Commerce Clause.

However, former President Obama’s respect for Congress’ autonomy is degrees of magnitude above Trump’s, which isn’t saying much given the clear contempt for limited power Obama’s infamous “pen and phone” comment expressed.

Obama, though, could at least pay lip service to the structural niceties outlined by the Constitution when it was politically expedient. Trump, who proudly ran as an outsider, cannot pass even this low hurdle.

In an interview with CNN, Trump was asked whether or not he would support the Senate’s decision to lower the vote threshold for approval of Supreme Court nominee from 60 to 51. He replied, “It’s up to Mitch, but I would say go for it.”

This question is utterly inane. Trump’s support for whatever measures it takes to confirm the nominee he imported is implicit; it is also irrelevant as Mitch McConnell’s right as leader of the Senate to order procedural changes to the body’s functions has nothing whatever to do with the president’s opinions.

So why even ask the question?

Members of Congress, particularly those who are members of the same party as the president, are not asked for their opinion of the president’s actions every time he signs an executive order or gives a speech in which he outlines a new regulatory policy the administrative agencies will be pursuing. Unless the president is pushing for a particular policy to be high on the Congressional docket, the irrelevance of legislative opinions on the actions which fall purely within the demesne of the executive branch seems to be generally understood.

It is troubling that this knowledge is not reflexively applied to the opinions of the executive.

The obvious answer to the question of why the president’s rationale is sought so much more frequently is obvious: personality. Unlike Congress, which has 535 members, only the most bombastic of whom are generally recognizable beyond the bounds of their constituencies, there is one president for all the people. His “brand”, to delve into the crass vernacular, is therefore more recognizable.

Sadly, this tends to reinforce the importance of personality to the success of a presidency. Again, this is not a phenomenon which is unique to Trump. However, it would be hard to deny that any previous candidate has captured the attention of the traditional news media and social media in quite the same way.

Trump’s claims to be a no-holds-barred fighter for his values, an image which has taken a beating as a result of his utter lack of control over the leaks coming from within his administration and inability to marshal the GOP into approving his healthcare reform agenda, undoubtedly helped him attain the presidency.

However, the personalities of candidates are rarely as raw and unfiltered as their presidential demeanors. There’s a great deal more wheeling-and-dealing which presidents have to do with a much broader range of voice than is required by a general election.

Trump, for better or worse, has not softened, nor does it appear he will be doing so at any time in the near future. From the perspective of the president’s fans, this is a mark of a genuine personality, an affirmation that President Trump will deliver on the promises of candidate Trump.

However, personality, if it can be considered a desirable political commodity, is only so if it augments judicious behavior which respects the procedural rules governing the federal branches of power.

And this means understanding an emphasis on personality, regardless of in which branch it operates, undercuts rule of law. When reporters ask the president to hand down a judgment over the actions of the Senate, or any other part of the government which is outside of the executive branch, they are complicit in eroding the separation of powers.

Words set the precedent for action. A polity accustomed to a president who approves or censures the actions of Congress, especially when his own personal agenda is involved, will be too accustomed to question an executive which graduates to actually subverting the legislature through, say, executive actions. Certainly, Obama received little criticism beyond that of easily-dismissed objections of right-wing activists. It would be nice to see those members of Congress and partisan critics who were abused by the previous administration assert their principles and lobby for better behavior from this president.


Also published on Medium.

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