By dint of that air of moral supremacy carried by the members of a majority in a nation that gives over ultimate power to the judgment of the people, the pinnacle of modern American political virtue is bipartisan collaboration. In uniting to serve “the common good” — an ill-defined term, the imprecision of which is compounded by questions of how the polity is constructed at a national level — politicians evoke that spirit of communitarian inclusivity which has become so enmeshed in the fabric of society.
But the conflation of social values with civic virtue does no favors to political efficacy. It promotes a dogmatic attitude towards bipartisan accords, which is blind to the actual merit behind individual pieces of legislation. The context of complex political issues, which often impact more than one level of government, is subsumed by the need for positive, collaborative movement. Meaningful distinctions, such as differences in epistemology and the particulars of the constituency towards which a politician owes some consideration, are rendered irrelevant. The result is a moral binary against which Congress’ success is measured: action is good; inaction is bad.
However, the engine of American government is not bipartisanship. To the contrary, the federal system specifically erects high hurdles between a bill and the president’s desk. The American system places limits on the government in order to protect the unique interests and inherent rights which belong only to individuals. It does this not only by placing absolute sovereignty in the polis so that citizens have recourse against action they deem tyrannical, but also by playing one government institution off against another. Gridlock, often descried as the work of renegade partisans desirous of sabotaging the public interest for their own benefit, is, in reality, a natural byproduct of a system designed to impede collaboration.
As James Madison explained in Federalist 51:
“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.”
Government is not one body, composed of various organs whose different tasks complement the others and, when viewed at a macro level, enervate its healthy functioning. Lawmaking is not an autonomous process and the failure of a bill to pass does not indicate disease somewhere in the system.
Rather, each organ of government is sovereign, for it has a single animating function to perform; whether another organ succeeds or fails is beyond its purview. This is true for even for complimentary factions: Subcommittees in one branch of Congress bear no responsibility for the state of the larger chamber; the failures of the Senate are of no concern to the House of Representatives. Each agency is, in its own extremely limited purview, akin to a dictator. It alone has authority to regulate itself; it alone bears responsibility for completing the task with which it has been charged.
This is not a threat to civil liberties because the field over which various government organs wield this supreme influence is extremely limited. It pertains to one very specific function, which is simply one step of many in the legislative process. Government organs are like junction boxes in an electrical circuit; they regulate the movement of a current along a predefined path, preventing damage from being done to the system as a whole by shutting down when faults are exposed. But they have no influence over other portions of the circuit.
The ability of government agencies to exercise discretion and decline to participate in the legislative process is crucial for two reasons. One, it dispels the notion that there is some mandate inherent to a democratic system which demands all factions participate in governing in every circumstance. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it reaffirms the individualist bent to American political culture, even where government is concerned.
Free societies operate on the assumption that complex interactions between citizens will help rein in excesses. It is unlikely that individuals will engage in actions that are damaging to their interests in the long-term. For instance, a local business that mistreats its customers and employees will not survive long, for communities are fairly self-contained and the alienation of one’s consumers and labor pool will have immediate and negative effects. Thus, individuals are still free to pursue their own interests, but the most fundamental of human instincts — the need for self preservation — acts as a check upon an individual in the event their intentions are malicious. Similarly, since individuals must exist within their communities, it is within their interest to participate in local events and bring about actions that mesh with their own self-defined good. Free societies, then, encourage collaboration which bolsters the whole, but, as a result of survival instinct, not to the extent that individual conscience is violated.
The federal government mimics this arrangement exactly. That constituent institutions within the same body, such as the House and Senate, have separate and distinct functions is crucial to understanding the federal government. Yes, both chambers have an interest in working together to pass legislation, but this does not override their respective areas of emphasis. The same principle holds true of factions within these bodies. The strength of partisan caucuses is a direct result of the attention they pay to their foundational ideas. Their interest in facilitating the swift passage of legislation extends only so far as that the bills before them do not run counter to their conscience.
This is why it is alarming to see prominent voices in Washington call for reforms that would put an end to mechanisms that protect the autonomy of different factions within the legislative branch. Gridlock reform and the elimination of the filibuster would doubtless make the passage of legislation easier. But, by design, passing legislation is not meant to be an easy feat.
Besides, the majority does not possess the right to run roughshod over a minority simply because numbers skew in its favor. This principle is why America’s complex system of checks and balances exists in the first place, and it is as applicable to the various factions of government as to various factions within the electorate.
Thomas Jefferson, who during his tenure as vice-president wrote the first etiquette book for the legislative body over which he presided, detailed the fundamental importance of procedures which protect the rights of minorities. In A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, he laid out the case for an open amendments process that eschewed practical considerations dealing with the timely forward progress of legislation between chambers:
“If an amendment be proposed inconsistent with one already agreed to, it is a fit ground for its rejection by the House; but not within the competence of the Speaker to suppress, as if it were against order. For; were he permitted to draw questions of consistence within the vortex of order, he might usurp a negative on important modifications, and suppress instead of subserving the legislative will.”
This stands testament to the autonomy which various factions in government have over the portion of the legislative process with which they have been trusted. To attempt to limit it, in the name of service of the public good, risks abrogating the rights of minority voices. And, ultimately, it is impossible for the whole to benefit through injury done to one of its constituent parts.
Also published on Medium.