The recent upheavals in Madison, Wisconsin have focused attention on the progressive inattention of citizens to the carefully thought out structure that drives this nation’s democratic republic. Although dramatically exemplified by the attempt of a county district judge to suspend the lawful process of a bicameral legislature, it is more profoundly about the national neglect that has permeated the democratic process and the depth of understanding of its value for some time. The identifiable underpinnings of this decline have presented themselves in a progressive reduction of participants in the democratic process, the reduction of standards of virtue in preservation of the sanctity of the voting process through lax standards, loss of confidentiality, and intimidation, and the lack of civics instruction. This has most profoundly affected the most democratically sensitive of the three branches of government, the legislature, and its progressive impotence in the difficult problems of our times threatens this nation’s democratic existence.
The founders put the most profound domestic powers in the hands of the legislature, the powers to enact laws and the powers to fund them, and accordingly put the most democratic constraints upon the legislature, with frequent elections to modulate their actions. The legislative branch, connected so profoundly to the will of the people, was assumed to be most responsive to that will. Owning the power of the purse through taxation, it was assumed that governmental representatives would be responsive to the electoral process that positioned them to be the spenders of the nation’s treasure. This bond between the people and those elected to serve the people was expected to be paramount. The founders were not foolish idealists, and certainly understood the potentially corrupting influences of human nature, thereby identifying the need for checks and balances. James Madison in Federalist Paper 51 put it succinctly:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. “
The pattern of checks and balances assured the separation of powers as well. The legislative branch had primary force to enact laws, the executive branch to execute them, and the judicial branch to review their faithfulness to the constitution. Madison, again in Federalist #51, however recognized there was no device by which to make the branches co-equal, and still effective:
” It is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”
Madison recognized the legislative process as coming closest to mirroring the will of the people. As designed, representatives would review and vet the merits of the law in committee, debate and adjust it, assess its effects on the general good and its expenses to the general treasure, then representatively vote, so that a record would be available to the voting population to assure compliance with the will of the people in the next election, or adjust the legilature accordingly. The entire process commands that the people have a will, and that the will of the people is respected. Legislative branch has suffered most under the modern corruptions of lack of civics understanding, money of special interests, and general disinterest in the common good and importance of governmental restraint. In the past few decades, laws have achieved epic status, thousands of pages in depth, so that no serious vetting of theire effect is feasible. Committees have given themselves up to poor attendance and lobbyist influence with legislators forming their opinion before reviewing a law’s consequences. The massive influx of money has made legislators progressively immune to the ballot box, and more willing to do the bidding of the interest that is supplying them with their re-election funding than for the voter citizen. The citizen has become ignorant of the importance of informed voting, and has accepted lax standards as to the sanctity of the vote, the propagation of numerous “democratic” votes to preserve non-democratic and self serving governmental mechanisms, and dis-interest in the outcome regardless of its effect on the society that has protected his rights for over 234 years.
The weakness in the legislative branch has led to a dangerous instability in the carefully crafted balance between branches of government. Executives at both state and federal level now usurp the vested powers of the legislature . State governors, have line item veto power that allows them to completely change the essence of an enacted law. Federal executives name unelected “czars” that deflect laws and rework apportioned money to achieve their political agendas, as well as initiate wars that defy the legislative power to declare them. Activist judges go profoundly beyond the constraints of the Constitution to declare laws unacceptable on the basis of effect, not lawful standing, dangerously injecting themselves into the legislative process. The legislative branch’s unwillingness to assert its constitutional responsibilities progressively leads to the paralysis we see today to deal with profound questions of individual rights, freedoms, and economic sanity.
It is no small irony that the coalescence of all these dangerous trends are coming together in the capitol of a state named for one of the framers of one of the most carefully thought out means of a people to rule themselves. We have seen the unholy storm of vulnerabilities injected into the Wisconsin process that is a microcosm of our national vulnerability – a duly elected legislature attempts to enact law in the face of threats of violence and intimidation, lawmakers who flee their representative responsibilities under the demand of the interests that economically supply their elective position, the infection of federal executive influence on an issue of state’s rights, the national corruption of special interest money, the interference of the judiciary in a matter of legislative process, and the self absorption of a citizenry that can not see the trampling of the protections that maintain their influence over those that govern them through the process of free and fair election intervals, not reactionary recall processes.
Our founders were not, despite appearances, ancient powdered wig reactionaries, but rather visionaries with incredible foresight into what has made one of the most successful self governed visions of a people in recorded history. Try as we might to destroy their vision, the wisdom shines through over the centuries. Maybe its time again for less yelling, and more reflection on why our processes were put in place, so that we can have at least a tinker’s chance of fixing the mess we have allowed to develop.