Separation of Powers

In their determination to protect future generations of Americans from tyranny, the Founding Fathers came up with the concept of separation of powers. They created the presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court. Oddly, they did not imbue the Supreme Court with the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, but the court simply assumed that role because it was obviously necessary.

Gradually a fourth branch of government has emerged in response to the nation's changing role in global affairs - the Pentagon. For better or worse, the U.S. military has become a key player in governmental affairs. It remains subject to civilian authority, but the true gauge of power is its exercise. Every day the U.S. military is out there making decisions on our behalf all over the world.

One might argue that the bureaucracy represents a fifth branch of government, but as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland - "There's no there, there." Some agencies in the bureaucracy have extensive authority, but it is exercised under close scrutiny. The bureaucracy is a collection of departments and agencies pursuing separate agendas. It is cumbersome and inefficient. It does not wield independent power.

Neither, unfortunately, does the Congress anymore. Over the course of the Obama Presidency, we have watched a sad spectacle on Capitol Hill as Senators and Representatives find themselves at loggerheads over virtually every issue, large and small. The American people seem increasingly divided into warring camps. Sophisticated gerrymandering of legislative districts means fewer competitive campaigns. We end up with extremists of both sides that are not amenable to compromise. Without good faith compromise Congress cannot deal with the nation's pressing problems - of which there are many. Thus, this stalwart repository of the people's power - arguably the most powerful of the three - has taken itself out of the power picture. Congress is helpless, pathetic.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has proven itself able to step into the breach and resolve many vexing questions before the government. Granted, I would take issue with many of the Court's decisions, but that is beside the point. The ability to decide controversial issues is the critical factor. But now the Supreme Court itself is divided down the middle in 4 to 4 votes on tough questions that need to be resolved. I trust this situation will not last forever, but for now we are working without two of our four basic power centers.

That leaves us with the White House and the Pentagon, the only two credible centers of power left in Washington. And of course as long as our military honors the great tradition of civilian supremacy, it will be subject to the Chief Executive. That leaves us with one remaining credible source of power in Washington - the Presidency. In this environment, it is more important than ever that the person in that job be qualified, sensible and knowledgeable.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.