Identify and comment on what you see to be the strengths and/or weaknesses of the American system as far as the topics in this section are concerned.
The constitutional system of the United States is a puzzling aspect of an American’s life. Many do not understand. Some think they understand it and with their slight grasp of it they try to offer solutions to better it. I would like to offer a broad concept of the American constitutional system and its subcategories, which are the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and what I have learned about them. In this paper, I will also present the strengths and weaknesses concerning each category.
To begin to grasp the constitutional system, one must first comprehend why it was chosen and why the forefathers composed it this way. Because most Americans, at that time, owned guns and were not formerly educated, the forefathers feared allowing them to rule (lecture 9/27/99). So they took it upon themselves, the well educated, to forge a new democracy. The forefathers chose a mixed government that represented three existing forms of government: a monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy (lecture 9/27/99). The President would represent the elected monarchy, the Senate would represent the aristocracy, and the House of representatives would represent the democracy.
The set up of the constitutional system chosen by the forefathers prevented the opportunity for the government to become oppressive (lecture 9/27/99). This was done in several ways. First the forefathers invented separation of powers. The legislative, judicial, and executive branches were set up in the manner that it would be less likely for them to come together. Each department had separate and distinct requirements to fulfill. The requirements will be delineated later on. On the other hand, each branch interfered with each other through checks and balances. The checks and balance system allowed for three important events to occur with each section of the government.
The checks and balance system deliberately set the three branches at odds with each other. Each department was made responsible for different electoral pressures. As mentioned before the branches were also given the ability and agility to interfere into the jurisdiction of the other. For instance, the President is responsible to negotiate treaties but the senate must ratify it. Congress can pass it and then the President signs. But even if Congress ratifies the treaty and the President signs it, the Supreme Court can declare it unconstitutional (lecture 9/27/99).
This division of power occurs at two levels; the federal and state level. The federal system consists of the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court. The state level consists of a governor, representatives, and local courts. The system seems to work very well but does it? When the forefathers forged the constitutional system there were certain problems that they did see, mainly because the country was relatively smaller and consequently less problems to deal with. The government did not have to be so efficient for it to work. The American society was wealthier in the sense that products were less expensive. For instance energy was cheaper, it only cost $1.15 for gas while in France it was 5 franks. But now the United States is involved in a competitive global economy and therefore lacks the efficiency that it once obtained. Another reason why the system worked so well was because the forefathers intended it not to work rapidly (lecture 9/27/99).
Can anything be done about the inefficiency that the system faces in such a competitive modern world? There are some alternatives that Theodore J. Lowi provides in an excerpt entitled Presidential Power: Restoring the Balance, but these solutions will come later on after the presentation of the three branches. For now I would like to expound on the strengths and weakness concerning the formation of the constitutional system. I believe that it was sheer genius. There exists no other government like our own and that has succeeded as well as ours has. The United States remains the only lasting superpower. There are many strengths in the system that allows for this.
The separation of powers allows for the distinct role of each branch but with this distinction each branch must check and balance each other. This makes complete sense because if each branch of the government were to be set on an equal ground there may be a struggle for power and control. This way each department is responsible for the well being of one another in reinforcing each other’s roles in being a government for the people. Each branch, although up holding the voice of the people would be able to make sure that policies and laws for the people would be just and fair. The checks and balance system allows for this to happen so that any branch could not take it upon itself to form any unjustifiable law or policy.
The division of the government into a state and federal government is also a product of our prodigy forefathers. The federal system would have the job of making and upholding foreign policies and the overseeing the domestic affairs of the country while the state government could focus on its own policies and affairs. Each state is different. There is not one state that is 100% similar to the other. There are different customs and reservations, various dialects of the English language, and diverse issues that each state deals with. Massachusetts and New York are neighbors in the Northeast portion of the country but both have distinct identifiers. Massachusetts’s residents are thought to be intellectually inclined which may produce some snobbery. We are more reserved in our attire and openness towards one another. We, for the most part, pronounce our ‘r’ s like
‘h’ s. Public and private facilities are closed earlier to help enforce better lifestyles and diminish violence. On the other side, New Yorkers are thought to be blunt and proud. There ‘r’ s are pronounced like ‘ou’ s. Public and private facilities are open long after ours are closed. New York is a place of excitement, fashion, and parties and Massachusetts is a place of business, history and education, (not to say that New Yorkers aren’t educated).
To expand on the weakness of the system it is best to look at the constitutional system from the inside out. First, let’s take a look at the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is supposed to basically uphold the laws and the constitution. According to David M. O’Brien, the author of the excerpt entitled The Supreme Court: From Warren to Burger to Rehnquist, “in it’s history the Supreme court has been known as a champion of one cause or another.” It has played a substantial role in the political movement except during times of transitions and important elections. Presidential election control the judges appointed onto the Court and sometimes the path that the Court takes (O’ Brien).
There are nine judges who are share power and influence. The judges must accommodate for the position and voice of every other voice but the Chief Justice, if influential and persuasive enough has the ability and opportunity to revolutionize the voice of the court and have an everlasting role in history. This is what each Chief Justice seeks to achieve (O’Brien). The Warren court is one of the more memorable courts in contrast to the Renhquist Court, which the author chooses as the more memorable. During Chief Justice Warren’s appointment, there were several impacting rulings made. The first of these rulings was in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education. In 1954, Warren declared that separate but equal was inherently unconstitutional and ordered for the desegregation of schools.
Desegregation of schools changed the life of many citizens and sparked a revolution in American schools (O’Brien). Imagine going to school with only black or white students and then one day having to mix. For few this may have been a good adventure but for most this threatened their very notion of separate but equal and the lifestyles. Schools were closed because whites did not want blacks in their schools. Many blacks were terrorized and ridiculed when and if they could attend a previously all white school. Angry sentiments were expressed to Blacks, supporters of this decision and, Justice Warren himself (Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights documentary).
Warren also “announced the reapportionment revolution in guaranteeing equal voting rights in 1962, he extended the exclusionary rule to the states in 1961, and in 1966, he sharply police interrogations of criminal suspects” (O’Brien). These rulings gave him a mark in history as one of the “great chief justices” (O’Brien”. Another Chief Justice included in this article is Burger who on the other hand ” proved to be a considerable disappointment for conservatives” (O’Brien). Although he was a devoted Republican he, often times, voted on the liberal side. He was a friend of Warren who had an intrigue for court management. But his personality and prevented him from being decisive, and he was incapable of compromising which is a key to one’s success in leading the Court (O’Brien).
There were a few important ruling during his appointment like the Roe v. Wade case, which lead to the right for a woman to obtain an abortion (O’Brien). There were few judges like Justice Brennan and Marshall who voted against this. They were called this because of their independent and strong judgments (O’Brien). There are exemplary judges and those who do not necessarily qualify. Chief Justice Warren was an exemplary judge but his crony Burger was under qualified for the job. But the job itself is hard and involves compassion, knowledge, and sternness some of which Robert H. Hork, author of Our Judicial Oligarchy, says are lost and much of the time is not apparent.
Hork says that ” the most important moral political, and cultural, decisions affecting our lives are steadily being removed from democratic control. Only justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas attempt to give the Constitution the meaning it had for those who adopted it”. This is quite a strong statement that he makes. It introduces a whole new aspect on the previously unknown weaknesses of the Supreme Court. Hork states that “most members of the Court seem to be gnostics firmly believing they have access to wisdom denied the rest of us. Justices may be out of tune with reality and the truth of the law. They rule, as if they know best, but shouldn’t they? Isn’t that the job that they should fulfill, to know what is best? They should know what is best for the country but not by their own will or opinion but by the application of the constitution.
Justices have become more liberal and rule on decisions that may not involve them. They even so far as to overriding present desires when they ” declare a statute unconstitutional” (Hork). Hork accuses them of sometimes making up what is not there. He provides five examples of which the Court has demeaned itself and weakened the constitutions purpose and has ultimately empowered themselves as the sovereign authority. Using two of the cases will help to expand on his accusations. Virginia Military Institute had been an all-male school and it was protected from not admitting women by an equal protection clause for 128 years. The Court ordered this institution to admit women under the guise equal rights and anti-discrimination laws. But it is the law that was used the equal protection clause that protected the Institution for 128 years (Hork).
In another case a hauler had been an outspoken against the Board of County Commissioners which is not an unfamiliar practice. But the Court elevated patronage to the level of a First Amendment violation. This is an evident misapplication of the First Amendment. These cases are examples of the weakness and frivolity of the Court. Many Justices are arrogantly self ordained, impervious to arguments about its proper behavior, and unrestrained in its loose interpretation of the constitution which all can lead to a disastrous in for the reliability of the Supreme Court and its duty to reinforce democracy. These are distinct weaknesses for the judicial branch but the legislative and executive branch suffers from certain weaknesses.
Congress and the Presidents have always mingled. The job of congress is to legislate. It ultimately shares this duty with the President and the Supreme Court, but remains at the center of making legislation. Congress introduces its own legislation and does the bidding of the people (lecture 11/17/99). It had much strength and now has many weaknesses. In chapter 10 section one of Cigler and Loomis’ book entitled American Politics, we learn about the changing textbook congress. The strength of Congress resided in its party unity and loyalty, coordination, reciprocity in the 1940’s and the 1950’s (C 350). Congress was known for its hard working members who knew each other’s name and were familiar with each other. Party members were loyal to what their respective party represented. There was organization and a give and take relationship between members of congress. This all changed.
The weaknesses of congress are more apparent because of several factors. The increase of staff members complicated the liability of the congressman and the many committees undermined the power of the legislative system (C&G 341). Committee chairmen exercise their power by making policies and thus decentralizing the process of legislation (lecture 11/29/99). “Rubbing elbows is replaced by liaisons between legislative corporate enterprises in the 1960’s” (C&G 341). Also during the 1960′ and 1970’s there were economic and demographic changes that required reapportionment of districts (C&G 343-344). Districts were no longer rural or urban and this introduced a diversification of matters. This in the long run has affected the president’s role.
The presidents role, according to the article entitled If You Sincerely Want to Be a United States, was to be an embodiment to external threats, be commander-in-chief if the armed forces, and conclude treaties and appoint ambassadors. He was to be the instrument of a unified foreign policy”. These are the strengths of the president. His ability to represent the country to the world effectively and prominently. This is not the case now. The President has be tied down because of a “superman” identity (lecture 12/6/99). America has made the president the head of his party. This disillusions the people because they have great expectations of him. Theodore J. Lowi says that ‘ the people continue to vacillate between excessive expectations and unwarranted indignation in his article, “Presidential Power: Restoring the Balance”.
This superman identity arose from the Nixon presidency. He was brought upon the imperial presidency, which allowed him to assume a few falsities. The President was above the law, the president and the state are the same, the president should assume certain powers, and barriers set against the President’s actions were acts equivalent to treason (Lowi). However, some Presidents did not act in this manner and did not assume these uncasing privileges. Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, James Madison and are all former Presidents who felt that it was unconstitutional and contrary to the forefathers wishes for the president to obtain the powers that Nixon assumed (C 11:2 384,386).
These may seem like strengths of the executive branch but they are weaknesses for it and congress. Congress looses its ability to check and balance the President’s actions because of his superman identity. The president is overwhelmed with unprecedented responsibilities and congress is left with little to or frustrated on what to do. Many attempts have been initiated to curb the presidents power and restore balance through the Wars Power Resolution and the Congressional and Impoundment Control Act (Lowi). Theodore J. Lowi introduces a few resolutions; a single six-year term, stronger political parties, or a three party system (Lowi, lecture 9/29/99)
Viewing the weakness and strengths of the constitutional systems and its components, I would not say that we are doomed for distaste but institutional reform is a must and obligation for present and future politicians and political scholars. The only way this would happen is if the president or the next would be willing to admit to the unbalance between the executive and legislative branch. He would also have to disappoint the American people by denouncing the superman identity. The Supreme Court would have to be regulated by the President or Congress. Its life long tenure would probably be the first to go. Once you have something for good you can do anything with it but understanding the possibility that it can be removed may shape up one’s position and action.