Who Runs the Country?

“Who runs the country?”

The answer that is popular with cynics who are trying to pretend sophistication is “wealthy people”, “Wall Street”, “multinational corporations”, or “the media”. But those answers are just nonsense that people bandy about for shock value. They don’t hold up to close examination. In reality, the government has the power to tax the wealthy into poverty, regulate Wall Street into submission, destroy any multinational corporation, or fragment the media into a cacophony of babble. And they could do it within twenty-four hours.

Okay, so the government runs the country, but we can make our answer more precise by asking the follow-on question, “Who in the government has the power to run the country?”

The obvious answer is the President of the United States.

Obvious, but by my reading of the Constitution, wrong. The President runs the civil service and the military. And, as Head of State, he personifies the country when required.

But the real power in the government lies with Congress: the combination of the Senate and House of Representatives.

Only Congress has the power to create federal laws. Any laws as long as they do not conflict with the constitution or conflict with the powers given to the states by the constitution. The President’s signature is required to make an act of Congress into law, but even that can be overruled if the act gains a sufficient number of votes.

And, if the Congress has a problem with the constitution, it can send an amendment to the states for ratification, no Presidential approval required.

Only Congress has the power to tax the people and decide how the money will be spent. Every year, when the President needs money to run the civil service, he must send a budget to Congress and ask them to approve it. They can amend his budget in any way they wish before passing it. And they do.

Only Congress has the power to declare war. And the power to determine the rules under which the military conducts itself. A couple of presidents, most notably Lincoln and Nixon, have used their power as Commander-in-Chief to send troops to commit acts of war without an explicit declaration by Congress, but they were on very shaky legal grounds. Lincoln’s actions were rubber stamped by Congress after the fact and Nixon was driven from office.

The President doesn’t even have a free hand in running the civil service. Most senior members of the government, more than a thousand positions, must be approved by the Senate, including Supreme Court Justices.

The civil service has the power to deal with citizens by creating and enforcing regulations. That is a significant amount of power that the President controls and successive presidents have exploited that power to an unprecedented degree. But even that is only because Congress permits it. The power to enact regulations as necessary was given to the civil service by laws passed by Congress. Those laws limit the extent of civil service regulations and can be modified by Congress at any time.

And, if Congress finds sufficient reason to question the actions of the President, it can impeach him, try him, and oust him from office.

Though power is shared between the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, it is not shared equally. Under any reasonable interpretation of the phrase, “run the country”, the power lies with Congress, not with the President, the Supreme Court, or any government department.

If the Congress wields so much power, why do they get so little respect?

Because they don’t deserve it. Congress has been only too happy to abrogate their power and let the President, the civil service, and the Supreme Court make the hard decisions on their behalf.

It’s cowardice, but Congress is cowardly for good reason. Congressmen have to get re-elected. Members of the House have it worse than Senators. They face elections every two years. Every two years. If they do something unpopular, they’re not going to be in Congress for long. And almost anything they do will be unpopular with someone. Vote for women’s choice and the anti-abortion lobby will make certain that they are trounced in the next election. But vote against abortion and the women’s equality lobby will make certain that they are gone. Same with every important issue from increasing taxes to reducing farm subsidies. It’s a hell of a life.

So Congress, as a whole, would rather pass a law declaring June tenth to be National Iced Tea Day than a law that would restrict the sale of urban assault rifles. Nobody cares that much about iced tea but the NRA is going to trash any congressman who dares talk common sense about public safety.

Until a substantial majority of voters cultivate a little common sense, Congress isn’t going to grow a backbone and our country won’t be run the way that Jefferson and Madison expected. Our country is going to keep suffering because of it.

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About Ashley Zacharias

I'm a post-modern woman who lives a vanilla life and dreams about kinky adventure. I write BDSM pornography but have no interest in acting out my fantasies in real life. Find my work on SmashWords.com and Amazon.com
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8 Responses to Who Runs the Country?

  1. js207 says:

    Interesting. The early part reminded me of the saying: beware, for the government powerful enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have. Fortunately, the US constitution would seriously impede most of that even if were tried.

    Much of the blame, though, surely lies with Presidential candidates, who run for office talking about their legislative agenda. ObamaCare? Bush tax cuts? HilaryCare? Arguably, in the first two cases they did deliver, albeit more in their unofficial role as party leader than as President, but it was Congress who actually wrote and passed the legislation. It would be a refreshing change to have a candidate admit “actually, tax rates are set by Congress, not the President” … or indeed set out the usual legislative agenda, then admit that since it’s legislative, they’ll be running for Congress not the White House to implement it.

    It sounds like we could agree the President presently wields more power than he is supposed to – with much more recent examples than Nixon for exceeding the War Powers Act limitations, including Libya – and that he was never supposed to “run the country”, but to lead the military and represent the US in international relations. Yes, he gets pointed at for things which are really legislative matters, but that’s largely self-inflicted when you look at the degree to which he involves himself in them.

    As for “urban assault rifles”, the manufacture and new sale of actual assault rifles was banned almost 30 years ago; the more recent nonsense about “assault weapons” would actually have been a prime example of ineffectual Congressional posturing, since it actually regulated the type of grip and grenade launcher mounting (seriously!) of regular single-shot guns and specifically excluded genuine assault rifles from its scope entirely. National Iced Tea Day was probably a much better use of Congressional time and government money than banning bayonet mounts!

    • There’s no question that the President has a lot of power. He’s not said to be the most powerful individual in the world for nothing. The only point that I really want to make is that his power is less than the collective power of Congress. We make a mistake when we think that the President runs everything and Congress is merely a discussion group. Too often, it sounds like the President, himself, makes that same mistake when he’s talking to the American people.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It appears that we agree on the fundamentals but not on all the details.
    I did try to choose examples of potential extreme power of Congress that were possible in principle. I’m not sure that the constitution would stop Congress from applying a 99% tax rate to any income over $500,000 per year, for example. Or enact laws that would prohibit trading in derivatives. Or impose extreme environmental, or health and safety regulations on companies doing business in the United States. Limiting the media is trickier because of the first amendment, but it is well within the power of the FCC to issue broadcast licenses only to companies below a certain size and which meet certain ownership requirements. It is common sense, not the Constitution that keeps Congress from going wild.

  3. Stephen Miletus says:

    I wonder that you did not quote Oliver Cromwell’s words as he dissolved the Rump Parliament — “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” — as an example that ineffective legislatures are not unique in time (e.g. the 17th century) or space (England). Then again, my impression of these words are colored by my memory of the movie “Cromwell”, which might not correctly reflect the import of Cromwell’s words or that of the Rump Parliament.

    • Wonderful. Being of Irish descent, I see Cromwell as a perfect example of why you should never give one man absolute power to run your country according to his whim.

      • S. Miletus says:

        Cromwell wasn’t any more “dictatorial” than the average head of state for his time: they all had the habit of ignoring inconvenient laws when they felt like it. And he did push for a written constitution — & we all know how well that stuck — so maybe he wasn’t the dictator some make him out to be.

        But one people’s hero is often the villain of another people. Cromwell wouldn’t be the only example of this in the English-speaking world.

      • js207 says:

        Stephen’s reply to this (I can’t reply to it – WP threading limits) said “they all had the habit of ignoring inconvenient laws when they felt like it” – apt wording, given Obama’s most recent actions and his DOJ’s refusal to answer Congressional questions lately. When the Executive branch withholds information from Congress and ignores laws it doesn’t like, which branch really has the power? They have the power to ask questions he ignores, pass laws he ignores …

        Having studied at the same university as Cromwell (different college, though: opposite side of the road) I’m certainly wary of an unfettered Executive branch. If they nail Holder with the contempt charges, it’ll be a significant move in reining in the Executive again – but changing immigration law as enforced on the ground? Even Obama himself said that was an inappropriate infringement last year – but didn’t let that stop him this year. It does demonstrate just how much power the Executive can wield as a practical matter, though; every one of your hypothetical Congressional abuses, for example, could be completely undone by an uncooperative Executive, even without a formal veto.

    • js207 says:

      Congress has certainly stretched its remit far beyond anything originally envisaged: to “tax the wealthy into poverty”, Ashley’s first example, was specifically ruled unconstitutional in ‘Pollock’ until the 16th Amendment granted them that power, and anything happening on Wall St would have been intra-state commerce, subject only to regulation by New York and firmly out of Congress’s reach.

      The Executive branch is far from powerless though – arresting and even shooting its enemies, granting or withholding waivers, enforcing laws or not – Congress has an almost insuperable hurdle just to pass any law the President doesn’t support, and even then he can often ignore it anyway. The hair-splitting law which more or less banned “flash suppressors” but allowed “muzzle brakes” for example: it was the ATF, part of the Executive branch, which split that particular hair.

      Maybe term limits would help in this respect as well? Presidents get 4 or 8 years to do what they’re there for, that’s it, while members of Congress have more motivation to play it safe and focus on keeping power all the time: never a ‘lame duck’ Congressman with nothing to lose.

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