Mickey Edwards

September 14th, 2012

Political Parties and the Undermining of the Constitution
Americans are frustrated by a federal government that seems locked in a struggle between political parties so focused on their own advantage-seeking that they cannot forge the compromises necessary to move forward on even the most important national issues. The partisanship that has overtaken Washington, however, has consequences far more serious than whether Congress can agree on a tax plan or a Cabinet appointee. What’s at stake is the future of the constitutional system itself.

Consider two principal elements of the constitutional construct – representative government and separated powers.

The Founders were determined to ensure that Americans would be citizens, not merely subjects, and attempted to guarantee that result by placing most of the major powers of government with Congress, rather than the Executive, and providing for citizens to be fairly represented in the Congress’s decisions by requiring that members of the House and Senate be inhabitants of the state from which they are elected. Routinely, however, the dominant party in partisan state legislatures undermines that goal by drawing congressional district lines not to increase representativeness but to create an advantage in ensuing elections. As a Congressman from an urban district (Oklahoma City) I saw the effects firsthand. I was elected as a Republican in a district that had not previously elected a Republican since 1928. Democrats, who controlled the state legislature, then redrew my district as a large upside down L, from the center of Oklahoma north to the Kansas border and then east nearly to Arkansas. Wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and small-town merchants found themselves “represented” in Congress by somebody who could not adequately articulate their concerns. The basic constitutional premise – representation by one’s neighbors – was sacrificed in the seeking of advantage for a political “team”. That authority to deny citizens the support of articulate spokesmen for their concerns is the rule in almost every state and its corrosive power is exercised by Republicans and Democrats alike.

A second fundamental of the Constitution ensures that no American would ever gain dictatorial power, not even the somewhat restricted power enjoyed by British kings at the time of America’s founding. The powers of the government were to be separated – most (over war, taxes, spending, treaty approval, confirmation of Supreme Court justices) were placed in the hands of the legislative branch; the final say over controversies (and, today, constitutionality) fell to an independent judiciary; in times of conflict the Executive controlled the nation’s military and at all times had sole authority in the negotiation of international agreements and, importantly, retained the ability to veto legislation under a provision that made it certain that his veto would stand in almost any case (two-thirds of each House of Congress would have to agree to overturn his rejection). Simply put, this Separation of Powers gave each branch of government separate realms of authority and allowed the Executive and Legislative branches to keep a check on each other. So what happened?
Parties happened. Each of the first four American Presidents – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – warned against the creation of the kind of permanent rival factions that today dominate American politics. When George W. Bush arguably overstepped his constitutional authority by declaring his right to ignore provisions of federal law, a claim denounced by the American Bar Association, members of the opposition party in Congress vigorously condemned this “unconstitutionality” and member of his own party quickly rose to his defense. This was not a Congress in which members used their best judgment in determining what was or was not constitutional, it was a matter of party members siding with one of their own or opposing a member of the other team. On budget matters, appointments even to sub-Cabinet administration positions, and, worst of all, matters of foreign policy and national security, it is one’s team membership, not one’s constitutional obligations, that determines where one stands. The President’s opponents attempt to block anything the Executive proposes; member of his own team, rather than serving as a check on his power, go along in the name of team unity.

Every September 17, we observe Constitution Day. It would be good if we observed that important achievement on the other 364 days of the year as well. Unfortunately that is a rare occurrence when party loyalty trumps constitutional responsibility.

Mickey Edwards is a former member of Congress and the author of “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans”

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