Checks and Balances: The Government Shutdown in Perspective

When James Madison wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787 he intended the system of Checks and Balances to operate in such a way that by separating the powers of different institutions "tyranny of the majority" would be countered. He relied on differing opinions in the separate branches. Even now that the majority of Congress has passed the Affordable Care Act, and the president has signed it into law, Madison's system of checks and balances enables the House of Representatives to stand in the way of its effective implementation. Conservative Republicans are using the system, because they can, to bring the healthcare bill back on the agenda by refusing to pass the omnibus budget bill for 2014. This is possible by design and a result of the Separation of Powers. That system of checks and balances incorporates the need for agreement and compromise between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

Needless to say, I don't believe that the Founding Fathers ever imagined that statesman would behave in such an unstatesmanlike manner as to risk default on government debt, penalizing federal workers or those in the military, with job suspensions and related pay suspensions. Yet many federal government functions and offices are now shuttered, the result of refusing to compromise. The consequences for business, financial markets, and the future well-being of American retirees can be substantial and range from merely negative to disastrous.

The next opportunity for the conservatives in Congress to bring up a check on the other houses is to withhold agreement on raising the federal debt ceiling. The last time they did this the nation's credit rating was reduced and world markets reacted by devaluing American treasuries. Financial markets dropped based of the perception that Congress might not meet its commitment to pay its bills.

Even though it is out of context with 18th-century financial systems, it is precisely what the Separation of Powers was intended to make possible. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, the wealthy minority, who constituted the Founding Fathers, were afraid that democracy was a threat to property ownership. The dilemma they faced was reconciling economic inequality with political freedom. I don't believe that they anticipated that congressional standoffs would translate into potentially great financial losses for the very wealthy it was intended to protect.

Although the system of the Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances allows almost all in the political system to have their views heard, the system also encourages stalemate as we see today. The Separation of Powers and the System of Checks and Balances was intended to promote the politics of bargaining, compromise and playing one body against the other. What the current Congress doesn't seem to get is the necessity for bargaining and compromise. Without that, the result is gridlock.

If our Congressional representatives, the president and legislative houses, cannot respond effectively to the fragmented system of our policymaking processes, with the consequence that all of us pay financially as a result, it may be time for us to recall our representatives en mass and replace them with others that will negotiate in the public interest. That is the ultimate power that the people have over their government and the ultimate check in our American system.