Monday, July 23, 2007

Our Philosophy of Government

Well this is a good post to get started back to blogging.

Over on Kos mcjoan discusses the importance of the Congressional "power of the purse" and how it is only appropriate that Congress is getting a handle on this war via a spending bill. She points out, with references, the intent of the framers of the Constitution with regard to war powers and the use of funding by Congress to keep a rein on the President.

I'd like to take a step further back and discuss more generally what I believe to be the general philosophy of government that we on the left support. I think that too rarely do we on the left tie our programs and policies back to first principals. Too few people can articulate well why we believe what we do about the appropriate relative roles of the President and Congress. And because of that vacuum, Republicans and conservatives have been free to fill it with absurd arguments that go unchallenged. To that end I wish to elaborate my views on our Constitution.

In my view, the form of the Constitution indicates the flow of authority from highest to lowest. In this view of proper governance, as reflected in the United States constitution, the people of the United States are Sovereign. No authority of established government is superior to the will of the people. Hence the preamble of the Constitution:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Prior to describing any part of the government, the document declares that "We the people" are establishing this government. Now this does not imply that any individual's actions are supreme. An individual acting against the established laws of the nation is acting against the will of "the people" in general and so is subject to prosecution and punishment. But those policies and programs established and approved by the people at large are always the ultimate authority.

Article I of the Constitution then establishes the legislature, the preeminent branch and the branch ultimately responsible for actually governing the country. The people are sovereign and govern via their representatives in Congress. Congress is the branch most directly responsive to the will of the people. Therefore, all laws, spending bills and decisions about going to war are placed in the hands of Congress. Congress can remove the President and judges from office, nothing except Congress itself can stop Congress from functioning. Given the powers granted to Congress it is able to function and provide governance to the nation entirely on its own, albeit awkwardly and ineffectually, for no other branch is that true.

The constitution then goes on to establish the executive branch in Article II. The President is a check and balance against a Congress run amok, but the President's job is to enforce the laws generated by Congress, not to rule in his own right. The President, being a single individual, not an organization of many, like Congress, has a great deal of power as a result. The Constitution does not grant him more. In spite of Bush's grandiose claims with signing statements, neither his signature, nor that of any other President, is even needed for bills to become law. In spite of Bush's claims, (claims that I'm sorry to say only extend the already over broad claims of most modern Presidents) of absolute power in times of war as commander-in-chief, his role is only as nothing more than first general and admiral, responsible for command and direction of military forces, to borrow from Hamilton in Federalist 69. Appropriately, Congress, the representatives of the people, sets the objectives of our nations military and the resources that should be used to achieve those objectives and the Presidents job is to determine how to use those resources to reach those goals. Read here for a longer exposition on my part on the roles of Congress and the President in war time. Also, recall that Congress can fire the President, the President has no similar authority over Congress. The President's role is to administer the laws passed by Congress, to act as a check on Congressional excess, to serve as the point man in negotiations with foreign powers, and to serve as commander of our armed forces at times when Congress has determined we are at war. He has no authority beyond that.

Then, in Article III the Constitution sets up the Judiciary. As important a branch as this is, it cannot initiate any action at all. It can only serve to respond to the actions of other branches of government or of the people. Furthermore, at the federal level, its members are all hired and fired at the whim of the other two branches. For these reasons it is quite weak and appropriately placed in article III.

The authority of the states is then listed in Article IV as the Constitution is intended to create a strong central Federal government uniting all the states. The authority of no state stands higher that the authority of any of the branches of the Federal government.

The remaining articles deal with amending and ratifying the document. As such the question of relative authority of established branches of government is not relevant.


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