By Mickey Edwards, a former member of Congress who represented Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district for 16 years
The underlying principle of America’s Constitution is pretty straight-forward. Americans are to be citizens, not subjects. Governments tell their subjects what to do but citizens tell their governments what to do. In the United States, that fundamental hallmark of citizenship is accomplished by (a) placing most of the major powers of the federal government in the hands of the national legislature, and (b) giving the people the right to determine who will serve in that decision-making capacity. Leaving the people with that power to determine what government shall and shall not do, and further arming them with specific restraints on government both within the original text and the subsequent Bill of Rights, the Founders gave citizens powerful weapons with which to defend their liberties.
They had not, however, counted on the pernicious effects of a modern political party system which renders almost moot the separation of powers at the heart of the constitutional check on executive overreach. America’s leading Founders (among them, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison) warned repeatedly against the creation of the kind of political parties we know today; limited and shifting factions were one thing but permanent factions were something altogether different, something to be feared. If there is one notable feature of today’s party system it is the extent to which American civil liberties are jeopardized by the tendency of congressmen to willingly defer to presidential claims of extra-constitutional authority if the President and congressman share a common partisan identity.
My own personal experience with that problem came when President George W. Bush began to regularly claim the authority to disregard clear federal law – legislation that had become binding law with his own signature – because he felt it impinged on his own broad definition of executive powers and because, well, it would be inconvenient to have to actually veto legislation that combined provisions he agreed with and those he found troublesome, even though the veto is the only remedy constitutionally provided to the President when he finds parts of the legislation distasteful.