How Congress is Destroying Democracy

It is not unusual to hate Congress.  Everyone hates Congress and with good reason.  The old joke asks if Congress is the opposite of progress, and the answer is, of course, yes.  However, over the past few administrations, the situation has become dire.  I believe that Congress has set the United States on a path that will ultimately result in the end of our system of government.

Congress has had help in eroding the government.  The other branches have done much to turn a nominal democracy into an barely covert oligarchy.  The Executive Branch has been grabbing power for itself unchecked for almost 80 years.  The regulatory state is by nature far more complex and comprehensive than legislation.  However, the Executive Branch has been growing astronomically since the Great Depression culminating in the Unitary Executive Theory.

The courts have also done their part over time.  As a rule they are too deferential to the other branches.  Throughout history the Supreme Court has lacked the foresight to avoid self-inflicted wounds.  The foremost example was Dred Scott but there are many, many other examples.  Each of wound has caused the Supreme Court’s validity to be called into question.  Because validity is the only real power source the judiciary has (it controls neither the purse nor actual enforcement forces of any kind), this has led the courts to try and avoid constitutional questions unless absolutely necessary.  Last year in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court inflicted yet another wound on itself and on the country.  Donating money is conduct not speech.  A corporation is not a person and therefore not protected by the First Amendment.  Common sense tells us the previous two statements are undeniably true.  According to the Supreme Court, both are false.  In our capitalist democracy the richest had the most influential voice; in a post-Citizens United world they will have the only voice.

Nevertheless, the most culpable institution for the inevitable destruction of our democratic republic is Congress–the Senate in particular.  Arcane Senate procedures prevent legislation from passing and administrative and judicial nominees from serving without any votes ever cast.  Moreover very few Senators and Representatives are experts in their fields they oversee (unlike federal agency career staff who are.)  I would argue that in most cases Senators and Representatives are less intelligent than the average American citizen, and to compensate they wage a cultural war against “the elite.”  Yet, it is these people who set policy.  What really makes politicians different from the rest of us is that they are crueler, more ruthless, and more power-hungry.  These are not the leaders we should want.  A government cannot run the way Washington is running; something will eventually give out.

The pushback has already started.  The White House, over the past several administrations, has increased the number of Presidential advisors.  These advisors serve as a de facto Kitchen Cabinet and have better access to the President than the actual Cabinet.  Better still, they need no Senate approval.  Increasing their number is a logical next step when the Senate will not confirm appointees.  It is no surprise that in recent years the agencies have been losing turf to the White House.  White House staff is more important if less prestigious.  Former Secretary of State James Baker left the State Department to become Bush 41’s Chief 0f Staff.  This was considered a step up.  (It says volumes that no woman has ever been Chief of Staff.  An alarming reminder that women are allowed to be figureheads in government, but Executive power is still a male-dominated arena.)  This White House power grab should alarm federalist and all those who oppose centralized power.

The federal courts and not Congress have thus far been the bulwark against an Executive power grab.  However, the federal courts too are suffering from the Senate’s gridlock.  The courts need more judges to run effectively.  Instead they are getting fewer.  The Democrats will most likely not treat the next Republican President with more respect than the Republicans are treating Obama.  Doing so would highlight weakness, especially given the ideological picks that Bush 43 made (and the next Republican President is likely to also make.)  The rift between parties  can no longer be healed.  That is America.

As I noted above, the unstated truth about federal court authority is that it is a house of cards.  In order for court orders to be effective, the parties have to submit.  When an individual does not obey a court order, the court has corrective alternatives.  Should the federal government not comply, then the court has a problem.  Since Thomas Jefferson, Presidents have challenged the Supreme Court with varying degrees of success.  The Bush administration showed how impotent the Supreme Court can be, and a future President could very well ignore court orders altogether with no consequences.

What will happen to Congress?  It will not disappear entirely.  As much as Americans hates Congress, they want the facade of choice.  Congress is doomed to be like the Senate of the Roman Empire as the President evolves into an autocrat.  Karma would indicate that this is what the United States deserves.  The American government interfered with the democratic process around the world, aiding brutal dictators in demolishing elected leadership.  The United States has not been an altogether beneficent world power contrary to what middle school social studies teachers teach.

In the end, perhaps this has always been inevitable.  Tragic, but inevitable.   The world is facing economic, ecological, and martial crises.  The most powerful nation in the world cannot act because 535 children will not get along.  Governments need to be run by adults, never more so than in the face of crises.  Congress only hinders the President, and the incoming Congress will be worse.  The last Bush Administration proved that Congress is superfluous.  Russia and China are proving that the wave of the future is dictatorship not democracy.

I see no change on the horizon.  In my fantasy world, I have a suggestion for how to fix the government.  Constitutional Amendments!  Number 1: Every person in Congress, after his or her term ends (either by retirement of an election loss), must serve half the length of his or her term in prison.  Number 2: Repeal Citizens United.  Go to back to common sense rules regarding money and corporations.  Number 3: Elected officials, political appointees, and federal judges should lose all personal civil rights guaranteed by  the Constitution during the time that they serve.  They cannot vote, they do not have free speech, they cannot carry arms, they have no inherent privacy, etc.  Their salary is limited to a living stipend and nothing more.  Any other money that may come in such as royalties or investments must go into escrow until after they leave office.  All money they have or their families have must also be frozen until they leave office.  Their children get free education at public institutions through the age of 22, but are barred from attending private institutions.  The Justice Department sets up a division devoted solely to monitoring and micromanaging all expenses and expenditures.

What is the purpose of such draconian measures?  Elected and appointed officials have a lot of unchecked power, and it needs to be balanced out.  People who do serve in positions of power should serve only out of civic duty and not for material benefits or hunger for power.  The only way to ensure this is to make the consequences of serving so horrific as to weed out the faint of heart.

This is my fantasy to fix things.  In reality I believe that the system is beyond repair.  It had a good run.

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