Political Parties Are Not "Checks" Or "Balances"

There's an old inside-the-Beltway joke where a new House member is being shown around by a veteran of his own party. He is awed by entering the House floor for the first time, and is shown his new seat. He asks, pointing across the aisle to where the other party sits, "Is that where the enemy sits?" The older and wiser Congressman replies, "No, no, here in the House of Representatives we call our opponents 'the loyal opposition.' You're new, so you need to understand this. 'The enemy' is the Senate."

This joke came to mind while listening and reading to Republicans talk about tomorrow's runoff race between the incumbent Saxby Chambliss and his Democratic challenger Jim Martin. Because they're using a talking point which is false and which points out their own ignorance. And since it is ignorance we speak of, where better to begin than a Sarah Palin quote? (Ahem.) Here she is today, at a rally in Georgia on "Saxby's" behalf (others have pointed out that she never used Chambliss' last name, but I refuse to believe it was because she can't pronounce it):

We need Saxby because we need checks and balances in Washington. And we will not have that if Saxby is not reelected, Georgia. With one party in control of the House and the Senate and the White House we need a conservative who will speak for themselves.

Putting aside how "Saxby" (singular) morphs into "themselves" (plural), notice the phrase "checks and balances" and how it is being used.

It's not just Palin, either. Here is the Savannah Morning News' "SavannahNow" webpage, with the paper's runoff endorsements:

Returning Mr. Chambliss to the Senate means Democratic leaders won't be able to ramrod bills through the upper chamber without serious deliberation. Checks and balances still have places in Washington, despite impressive wins at the polls by President-elect Obama and other Democrats.

And, finally, here is the candidate himself on "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, being interviewed by Chris Wallace:

WALLACE: But you have campaigned against the president-elect and the Democrats. I want to take a look at something you said a few days ago. "If the Minnesota race was lost and this race was lost, then they," meaning the Democrats, "will have a blank check."

CHAMBLISS: That's exactly right. And Jim Martin, my opponent, is committed to doing everything that the president-elect wants him to do. And I'm simply not going to do that. You know, our government was based on a check and balance system: the administrative, legislative, judicial. Within the legislative, we've always had a check and balance by design. And if we give him a blank check, then I think it will not be in the best interests of the country and I will continue to promote that over the next 72 hours.

This is either astounding ignorance from a sitting Senator, or else a Republican-spun talking point which everyone coincidentally seems to be using. But, either way, the concept of having enough party strength in the Senate to filibuster bills simply was not a founding principle of the U.S. government. The word "filibuster" appears nowhere in the Constitution. The first filibuster didn't even happen until 1841. Rules for filibusters were worked out by the Senate (and then subsequently eviscerated by the concept of "cloture" later). So there is just no factual basis for saying "we've always" had such "a check and balance by design." Because we haven't.

Checks and balances are a different thing entirely. They have largely been absent for the last eight years, so I suppose it shouldn't be any wonder that Republicans have forgotten what the phrase originally meant. Checks and balances refer to the struggle for power between our three branches of government. Some powers are given to one branch or another with no such check or balance (such as the power to pardon, given to the president). These absolute powers are checks and balances -- such as the power of the Congress to impeach and remove the president. Some of these absolute powers (astonishingly enough) have even been given away from one branch to another (Congress' power to declare war, for instance, since World War II). And sometimes power grabs or power abdications by one branch or another actually realign the checks-and-balances structure of the government itself (see: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's term in office).

Every day of Bush's term has seemingly been a series of power grabs by the Executive Branch which go largely ignored by the Legislative Branch (see, just from last week: Bush's new Status Of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which should have been voted on in the Senate as a treaty, but was not). This, at first, was aided and abetted by a friendly Congress of his own party, and (later) by the weakness of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But the real check and balance of the Legislative Branch over the president is what is commonly referred to as "oversight." That, and the fact that the president doesn't get to write the text of the laws, he merely gets to sign them or veto them as written.

The entire concept of oversight has been woefully absent from Washington for the past eight years. The concept is that the Legislative Branch oversees what the Executive Branch is doing for the good of the country -- no matter what party is in power in either branch. Anyone who believes this is not possible need only look back to Bill Clinton's first two years, or Jimmy Carter's term in office. Even though the Congress was Democratic, they still were not rubber stamps for every action of the President. Democrats in Congress will need to perform oversight of Barack Obama, whether they have a 60-vote majority in the Senate or not. Just as any Congress is supposed to, without regard to party.

This transcends party affiliation, in other words. It's not hard to see why Republicans have a hard time grasping this concept, but whether the Senate is 60/40 or merely 58/42 should not matter to the "checks and balances" they provide for the other two branches of government. I certainly didn't hear any hand-wringing about checks and balances when Republicans took over both houses of Congress during George Bush's watch.

Of course, getting 60 seats in the Senate would change the dynamic of one single branch, but that really has nothing to do with constitutional "checks and balances." It has much more to do with passing a single party's agenda, and the relative power of the "out" party's ability to influence or block such legislation. But this has nothing to do with how the Framers set up our government.

Checks and balances do not equate to the relative balance of power between political parties. They are more important than that. Just because we haven't seen much of them in eight years does not mean we should lose sight of the definition of the term itself. Political parties were originally seen as a corrosive influence on American politics, by none other than our very first leader. Here is President George Washington, talking about political parties:

They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

. . .

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

So whether Saxby Chambliss retains his seat or not (at this point, it's looking like he is going to win tomorrow), the checks and balances of American government will not be in peril. The ease of passing legislation in the Senate may be impacted, but there are still a few moderate Republicans (such as both of Maine's senators) who might be induced to vote for Democratic proposals, so even that is doubtful. But I'm not too worried about whether checks and balances will disappear if Republicans don't have more than 40 seats in the Senate. Because true checks and balances are more fundamental than party affiliation.

And the fact that Republicans obviously don't see it this way is but one more condemnation of the way both George Bush and Congressional Republicans view how our government is supposed to work -- and how they attempted to govern while in power.


Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com