“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.