Image Credit: “Architect of the Capitol” via Flickr.
By Matthew Haddick
Election Day on November 6, 2018, resulted in rather predictable fashion. Most models and experts predicted the Democrats would take about 30-40 seats in the House, enough to become the majority party again. They also predicted the Republicans would pick up 2-4 seats in the Senate, remaining the majority party in that chamber. Those predictions have turned out to be correct. On election night they seemed to have over-favored Democrats slightly, but as votes continued to be counted a few Democrats pulled out victories.
The reactions to the evening were also expected. Both sides claimed they were pleased with the results and professed to pursue “bipartisanship” following the first election that split control of Congress since 2012. Of course, no such cooperation will ensue; it never does. It certainly didn’t in Obama’s last six years, and the Democrats have far less incentive to work with the President than Republicans ever did. The next logical step for congressional Democrats is to begin working on the 2020 election.
Given that, why have these elections become such spectacles? Very little about the government has changed since 2016. President Trump has unilaterally altered some minor policies through executive order, and one major piece of legislation – the tax bill – has been passed. None of these policies have fundamentally changed anything about American politics or culture. Even the tax bill did little aside from tinkering with brackets. And remember: this came after Republicans had majorities in both houses of Congress and a Republican president. Seemingly, very little about these midterm elections matter. Nothing about our politics or government will change until at least 2020.
However, it’s clear that as little changes in Congress, much is changing in our politics. One only must look at election results to see this: the number of congresspeople with more-than-questionable résumés is increasing. From two Republican congressmen (Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins) who won reelection after being indicted for corruption, to Greg Gianforte, who has won twice since body-slamming a reporter, to Bob Menendez, a Democratic senator who was indicted on corruption charges before going free on a mistrial, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a widely-publicized House candidate who knows nothing about economics. All of these candidates have won elections since their true character or qualifications were revealed.
In the past, such scandals and gaffes would disqualify a candidate. In local elections, officials are still often held accountable for their actions. For example, local teacher strikes often result in the ousting of school board members. But at the national level, very few officials are ever displaced due to elections. At best, in-party pressure forces individuals to resign, as with John Conyers and Al Franken last winter. Despite many candidates with tarred résumés, most incumbents that lost were simply in the wrong party in the wrong district. Virtually all were moderates and scandal-free.
I’m not arguing there’s nothing wrong with incumbents losing. But because partisan lean in a district is so strong, even assaulters, radicals, and ignoramuses can get elected if they’re in the right party. As the nation continues to split left and right, soon, all we’ll be left with are these unsavory politicians. Each side will continue to justify bad candidates by pointing to the faults of the other in a never-ending cycle.
Today we call this effect “partisanship.” The Founders called it “faction.” James Madison began Federalist No. 10 by stating, “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” He defines faction as “a number of citizens, whether amount to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent or aggregate interests of the community.”
In other words, our constitutional structure was intended to break the power of partisanship. The question is how – and why it isn’t working anymore.
The primary means the Founders used was separation of powers. They vested the legislative power in Congress, the executive in the President, and the judicial in the Supreme Court. The concept behind this is captured in the phrase “ambition counteracting ambition”. They reasoned that if powers could be clearly separated and defined, the jostling for power would be between branches, not factions – or, that even if there were factions, their effect would be mitigated by the constitutional structure.
They also instituted frequent elections in the House of Representatives – the people’s house – to ensure that judgment would be rendered often. They reasoned that as long as the people valued their freedom, they would never allow the House to be filled with people who would encroach on their freedoms. They didn’t institute term limits because they assumed they wouldn’t need them – people who valued their liberty would hold leaders accountable.
So why didn’t it work? As John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams and the other Founders saw that liberty could only coexist with virtue, not vice.
The degree to which change in government resulted in the change in culture is debatable, but ultimately not the point. They correlate, which is all that matters. As American society has moved steadily away from religion and virtue, the government has progressively gotten larger and larger. Since the end of the Korean War, the number of civilian federal employees has doubled. In 2014, the figure was roughly 1,356,000 workers.
Most of these employees work in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. This is the “swamp” often referred to by American conservatives. These employees, working for huge bureaucracies, do the job that Congress has vacated: legislating. Many agencies are also arbiters in their own disputes with citizens, thereby usurping the power of the Judiciary as well.
This effect has rendered Congress useless. It no longer makes clear laws with obvious purposes; it has dumped its responsibilities on the Executive branch, often violating the Constitution in doing so. When it does legislate, it does so in enormous, omnibus packages that are riddled with loopholes, expenditures and even mistakes.
The Supreme Court also does a considerable amount of legislating it was not intended to do. The power of judicial review – the ability of courts to overturn the legislation and executive actions – isn’t even in the Constitution.
Despite Congress’s ineptitude in the realm of legislation, it is still invested with one important task – the Senate must confirm Supreme Court and Cabinet nominees. Though the Senate itself has become useless, it has the constitutional responsibility to prop up the legitimacy of the other branches. So, Congress will be politically necessary as long as “advice and consent” remains – but no longer than that.
It doesn’t take much to see the breakdown in responsibility. The antics of our Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike – aren’t done to push causes or policy. They’re for the cameras. Congresspeople have made the correct assumption that they can use their position to slingshot themselves into the White House – and those who don’t will become lobbyists and pundits on cable news.
So, what do we have? We have a Congress that has abdicated its duties, a White House that has greedily assumed them, a bureaucracy that acts completely unchecked, and a Supreme Court that is omnipotent and similarly unchecked. They comprise a federal government that does things it was never intended to do, and states with politics determined at a national level. This leaves out the voice of the citizens – who are supposed to be in charge. With no power being delegated in these biannual events, what good is an election anyway?