12/20/2021 0 Comments
By: Rep. David Ray
There are several things I learned in Mr. Allen’s 11th grade American Government class that I quickly forgot and had to re-learn during college. At the time, I couldn’t have recited the Bill of Rights or told you the difference between The Stamp Act and the Alien and Sedition Acts. But two of the basic pillars of our American Republic that stuck with me were our Constitutional framework of separation of powers and our system of checks and balances that reinforces that framework.
That framework – which divides the powers of government between three separate but co-equal branches – is not just fundamental to understand how our government works on an academic level, but it’s also “essential to the preservation of liberty,” as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51.
The concept of separation of powers evolved throughout antiquity but was articulated more clearly by Enlightenment-era philosophers Locke and Montesquieu. The basic idea was that if the powers of government were divided up between separate and independent divisions, it would prevent anyone from usurping total power and becoming a dictator. The American Founders drew heavily on this idea when drafting our U.S. Constitution. They granted expressed and limited powers to each branch of government – the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary.
The worldview of the Founders often rested upon the Biblical truth of the fallibility of human nature. Humans are imperfect, and so are the governments which they create. Madison famously wrote, “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.”
Importantly, the Republican Party of Arkansas’s Platform recognizes the importance of separation of powers. The party platform states as its tenth principle, “Our republican form of limited government requires three separate and independent branches…to facilitate a robust system of checks and balances so that no one branch of government – whether located in Washington, D.C. or Little Rock – should wield more authority than the other two.”
Many of the problems plaguing our political system stem from our government deviating from the Founders’ vision of separation of powers. For example, judges who legislate from the bench by inserting their own opinions into their decisions rather than relying on the text of the law have done immeasurable harm to our political system. And in modern times, legislative bodies (particularly the U.S. Congress) have ceded massive amounts of authority to the executive branch and its agencies, tipping the balance of power in an unhealthy direction toward whichever party controls the executive branch. Modern Presidents, when Congress declines to rubber-stamp their agenda, often issue executive orders to accomplish through Presidential fiat what they can’t pass legislatively. President Obama’s infamous declaration he has “a pen and a phone” certainly comes to mind.
The concept of “checks and balances” is very closely tied to separation of powers. It gives each branch of government the power to limit -- or “check” the other two. For example, the executive branch can veto laws passed by the legislative branch. The legislative branch can check the executive branch by exercising the power to confirm (or not confirm) executive appointments. And the judicial branch can check the legislative and executive branch by determining the constitutionality of their laws and orders.
In Federalist 51, Madison explains this concept by stating, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Our Founders knew that because of the fallen nature of man, people are prone to seek power and control. Madison said, “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers…consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.”
While we often complain about the slow pace at which government sometimes moves to address certain problems, our Founders viewed this as a feature, not a bug, of our system. Checks and balances help to guard against the growth of government and help protect the rights of political minorities against what is sometimes called “the tyranny of the majority.”
Concepts like separation of powers and checks and balances may seem academic – or even archaic – to some, but it’s important that we work to preserve their importance. As President Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It has to be fought for and defended by each generation." While we no longer face the tyranny of the British Crown which our Founders sought their independence, we do face a subtle and gradual erosion of our freedoms as we continue to veer from the path our Founders laid out for us.
If our Founders were alive today, they would probably cringe at how much erosion has occurred of the concept of separation of powers. They would never have imagined Congress giving up so much of its power to the Presidency, only to see that power delegated to federal agencies – where government bureaucrats who are unelected and unaccountable make policy that affects people they will never meet that live hundreds and in some cases thousands of miles away.
But I believe there’s reason for hope. Over the course of four years, President Trump greatly transformed the judicial branch with a wave of federal judges that are originalists in their interpretation of the Constitution. Part of why I’m a Republican is because of the respect and reverence we have for our U.S. Constitution. We cherish all of this incredible document, not just bits and pieces that suit our momentary political whims. I believe the Republican Party represents our best and perhaps only chance to truly restore the Founders’ vision for the balance of power in America.