Constitutional Conflicts between the US Executive and Legislature
The framers of the American constitution created a document which ensured that no dictator would rule the country. The founding fathers guaranteed this by mapping out various the arms of the government. Each arm of the government has its own responsibilities, such that no arm is subservient to the other. However, in an attempt to provide enough checks and balances for the presidency, the constitution creates instances whereby the functions of the president and those of the congress overlap. In such circumstances, the unclear separation of power has led to frequent fights between the congress and the presidency. The overlapping presidential and congress powers have led to a constitutional crisis, and political bickering.
According to Fischer (2007), one of the key weaknesses of the American constitution is the governance system, which puts the executive and legislative arms of government in conflict. The challenges are more visible during a divided government- when the congress and the executive are under the control of different parties. The framers of the constitution did not envisage such a situation. Apart from complicating the passage of crucial bills, the scenario seriously hampers the president’s agenda. However, the tension between the presidency and the congress is good, as it keeps the government in check. Without the congress, America could have an imperial presidency that is intolerant to the wishes of people.
The areas that put the president and the congress in conflict include: declaration of war, the budgeting process, the powers to appoint, the powers to investigate, and the legislative and executive vetoes (Fisher, 2007). In order to settle the quagmire, the Supreme Court, in the interest of the country, has to examine the duties of the president, and the congress.
Declaration of War
The congress plays a vital role in determining whether to reject or defer to the president’s wishes on matters regarding foreign policy and declaration of war. Article II, section 2 of the American constitution clearly defines that the president is the commander-in-chief (Fisher, 2007). Article I, section 8 of the American constitution also states that congress has the power to declare war, and raise funds for a war (Fisher, 2007). Disagreements always arise, regarding the interpretation of the two legislations. This arises when the incumbent president is not popular, when the president overrides the ambitions of congress, or when the military campaign is weak (Fisher, 2007).
Problems arise when the executive and the legislative arms of government try to interpret their mandate under the constitution. Some legal experts argue that the powers granted to the presidency, by the constitution, allow the president to determine when, and where to deploy troops. Other legal experts argue that the congress cannot be left out in making such a decision, since the congress has the power to declare war, and raise armies for a war. This illustrates one of the areas whereby the powers of the president and the congress overlap. The disagreements highlight fundamental weaknesses created by the American constitution. In the aftermath of such a scenario, the congress takes the blame for usurping presidential powers. However, the role of the congress in such a critical matter cannot be downplayed. The congress, in the interest of the nation, may declare or stop war with a foreign nation.
Fischer’s views coincide with Justice Jackson’s “zone of twilight”. The president’s involvement in foreign matters may lead to overlooking crucial domestic matters. Therefore, the diversion of resources to a war should face the close scrutiny of the congress to ensure a balance between domestic and foreign matters.
The constitutional struggles between the congress and the executive came forth during the 110th congress, after the deployment of American troops in Iraq. The 110th congress repeatedly tried to reduce the number of troops in Iraq. Some members of the congress, as well as the speaker, questioned the president’s power to declare a war. The public questioned the government’s involvement in an unnecessary war. As a result, they came up with various legislative proposals aimed at undermining the president’s decision to send troops in Iraq. However, in each attempt, they successively failed in getting the senate to agree on their proposal. The speaker and the congress were following a trend set after the Vietnam War whereby members of the congress openly challenged the president’s military policy.
Appointments to the Supreme Court
The appointment of nominees to the Supreme Court is another aspect that causes tension between the executive and the legislature. This arises because the senate has to confirm presidential appointees to the federal court. Again, this has resulted into cases of struggle between the congress and the executive. Article II, section 2 of the American constitution empowers the president to name state nominees, with the advice of the senate (Fisher, 2007). The appointments involved include nominees to the Supreme Court, appointment of ambassadors, consuls and state officers. From time to time, the congress jealously guards its prerogative to approve or reject those appointments.
The response of the senate depends on the importance of the position, and the political climate. In some cases, the circumstances under which the senators reject appointments are not clear. The decision cannot be questioned since the senate does not have to explain the grounds for its rejection of an appointee. Although all the presidential appointments are essential, nominations to the Supreme Court draw wide attention from the senators, the media and the public.
Some presidents have had to make recess appointments; this avoids the possibility of having the appointments rejected, and public embarrassment (Fisher, 2007).
The precedent, over the struggle between the executive and the legislature, began during the Constitutional Convention, in Philadelphia (1787). During the convention, there was no mechanism for selecting judges, and executive officials. The states and their legislatures had the power to make appointments. The decision borrowed from the fact that the delegates, from the various states, knew the legislative operations of their states well; consequently, the delegates could make recommendations for people from their states.
Under the new constitutional framework, the government and the congress were to share power, with the government making executive appointments while the congress made judicial appointments. However, there was a disagreement, at that time, on who -between the senate and the president- was the best suited to appoint the suitable nominees. In the end, there was a decision that the power would be shared between the congress and the executive. This reduced the fears that leaving the president to make all the appointments would create a monarchy. Since the senate plays a role in the process, this safeguards the interests of the small states, since it is representative of all the states.
Under the arrangement, the president would make the appointments, and the congress would be left to reject or approve the appointments. The framers of the constitution thought that the process would be the most effective, as it minimized bargaining for the appointments. It did not take along before cracks began to emerge under this arrangement. In the following year, an appointee named Benjamin Fishbourn did not get the approval of some senators. The allegation was that Fishbourn had offended one of Georgia’s senators, earlier in his career. Partisan interests had taken charge in rejecting the appointment, and this threatened the spirit of the new constitution. This negated the idea that the senators would be the best suited in nominating appointees from their states. The situation set a precedent whereby the president, did not have to explain the reasons for appointing a nominee.
The constitutional struggles between the president and the congress did not end with the rejection George Washington’s appointees to the Supreme Court. After the 1994 elections, President Clinton’s government lost control of the congress. The republicans won control of both legislative houses. Without a footing in both legislative houses, President Clinton was in a vulnerable position. This forced the president to adapt new survival strategies- particularly vetoing bills. The president vetoed 35 bills in the 1995-2000 periods. This made the republicans challenge the president’s vetoes, in eleven of the bills. However, they managed to turn decision on only one of them.
The president threatened to use the veto power in over 140 bills. This strategy succeeded in preventing the republicans from advancing their agenda, and managed to make concessionary policies. The use of veto power was a bargaining tool for the president, which he used successfully during the second term in office. Clinton’s predecessors used cross-party coalitions to garner enough numbers to pass key bills in the floors of the house (Fisher, 2007). However, voting under party unity denied the president an opportunity make cross-party coalitions. The republicans did not support the president’s position, during the 103rd congress. As a result, the president’s success in using floor votes to support policy decisions was one of the lowest for any president faced with a similar scenario.
The republicans had a tight grip on the floor voting which diminished the president’s hopes of advancing preferred policy decisions during the 104-106th congress. The use of veto power was a response to the context faced by the president. This enabled the president to extract some agreements from the opposition which controlled the majority in both legislative houses. However, President Clinton’s lack of support in the congress led to his impeachment battles, late into his political career (Fisher, 2007). After the republicans established their authority in congress, they used their numbers to marshal support for impeachment. The president’s private life got a thorough examination to unearth dirty secretes which might lead to his impeachment. Although the president survived the onslaught of the congress, the incident revealed constitutional flaws, which may put the country into a constitutional crisis.
The scenario, which played out during Clinton’s presidency, is most likely to happen when the congress and the executive are under the control of different political parties. President Clinton faced impeachment due to tensions between the executive and the congress. However, such a scenario did not play out when President Bush as in office. The congress, largely made up of republican representatives, did not want to challenge a republican president.
The separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary is the core structure of any government systems. However, the American constitution has fundamental flaws, which come to the surface when the powers of the president and the congress overlap. A compelling example is when the speaker questions the president’s powers to declare a war (Fisher, 2007). The conflicts arise when one of the arms makes an attempt to dominate constitutionally protected mandates of the other. As a result, this creates a crisis since the president has an agenda to implement, but the congress may override the president’s agenda. However, the tension between the executive and the legislature may be good for the country because the presidency is kept in check.
Fisher, L. (2007). Constitutional conflicts between Congress and the President (5th ed.).
Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.