Anger at the so-called “elites” is a key to the popularity of Donald Trump and of those Democratic candidates advocating a “political revolution.”
Despite campaign rhetoric, translating voter anger into official policy is not as easy as voters often assume.
Our founding fathers gave us a government that does not function well – or quickly – without consensus. Reaching consensus is a challenge that has become more daunting in today’s hyper-partisan environment.
The founding fathers based our Constitution on a series of compromises intended to prevent one individual or faction from dominating everyone else. Most importantly, they separated governmental powers among three branches, gave each branch the ability to check the other branches, and required both the House of Representatives and Senate to agree before Congress can act on most major issues.
According to the annual survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 39% of Americans can name all three branches of the federal government. Only 61% recognize that when the Supreme Court and the president disagree over whether a presidential action is constitutional, the Supreme Court’s opinion prevails. This lack of familiarity
with how our government works has serious consequences.
For example, many people’s position on impeachment depends more on whether they approve of Trump’s job performance than on the question of how powerful he – or any future president – should be. Similarly, many people’s view of the appropriate balance among the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches reflects their attitude toward the decisions each branch is likely to make rather than consideration of whether exalting one branch over the others might be a long-run danger for all of us.
Historically, liberals have tended to favor presidential power while conservatives have more often preferred Congressional power. However, an important change is underway. Although, Trump has thrilled conservatives by appointing federal judges who are pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, at least his two Supreme Court appointees and his attorney general are much more sympathetic to a powerful presidency than has been traditional for Republicans. That should be a red flag for conservatives who routinely attacked President Barack Obama for governing as a “dictator.”
When Congress blocked his proposals, Obama claimed on occasion he had executive power to implement those policies anyway. Not surprisingly, Trump has done the same thing. The courts have upheld some unilateral actions by Obama and Trump, have overturned some, and are still reviewing others. Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome in the courts, Trump has demonstrated that many executive decisions by one president can be readily reversed by the next president.
Converting voter anger into change that can survive multiple presidents requires navigating a cumbersome process with many opportunities for failure.
First, both houses of Congress must agree to pass legislation in identical language.
Second, although the president has the power to sign that legislation into law (or to allow it to become law without a presidential signature), the president also has the option to veto it.
Third, turning legislation into law after a presidential veto requires a two-thirds majority vote in each house to override that veto.
Further complicating the lawmaking process is the fact that the Constitution allocates members of the House among the states on the basis of population but guarantees two senators to each state regardless of how many people live in that state.
Although the population disparity among the states was not as great at the time the constitution was written, the least-populated 26 states today have a majority of the votes in the Senate even though they have only 18% of the country’s population. That means that a relatively small minority of the Senate has the potential to block enactment of laws favored by an overwhelming majority of the country.
Significantly, the disproportionate influence of small states in the Senate also applies to the election of the president, in that the number of votes a state has in the Electoral College equals the number of that state’s House members plus that state’s two senators.
In theory, angry Americans can amend the Constitution to eliminate impediments to majority rule. However, amending the Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of each house of Congress and three-fourths of the states.
As a practical matter, the states that are happy with the status quo are likely to defeat any proposed amendment that would reduce their influence.
Some skeptics question whether building consensus is any longer possible or worth the effort. Voters in both parties who want their anger to lead to lasting change had better hope the skeptics are wrong.