Two of the three branches of our government — Congress and the White House and its executive branch — are used to interacting with each other. But they don’t routinely interact with the Supreme Court.
When the president represents one political party and Congress the other, conflict is automatic. The Constitution, when it made the judicial, executive and legislative branches co-equal, assured that tension existed between them. But when half or all of Congress shares the same political party affiliation as the president, the tension sometimes becomes subservient to political self-interest.
Presidents craft their own legislative agendas. President George W. Bush wanted prescription drug coverage to be included under Medicare so that seniors could better financially manage their health care needs. President Obama wanted “Obamacare” to pass Congress and become law, and it did — without any Republican votes.
Some congressional members of the president’s political party wanted to vote against such government-expanding measures, but party leaders exhorted them to “support the president,” alleging that it would be a failure for the president if they didn’t vote affirmatively. As a former member of Congress, I heard this argument repeatedly and felt the pressure intended.
Ideally, members of Congress should vote their conscience, doing what’s right for all Americans. The Constitution is silent about a congressional obligation to a president with the same political party affiliation. It doesn’t offer a complete instruction booklet for any of the three branches. Its guidelines are broad. Presidents and members of Congress are accorded great freedom when elected, as the Constitution intended. I recall being told at my freshman orientation, before being sworn in, that no one could control how I represented my constituents. I was free to be diligent and responsive to their needs or do nothing, though doing nothing would likely make me a one-term congressman, unable to be re-elected. Every member of Congress is accorded such freedom, and so are presidents.
Politically savvy presidents communicate regularly with members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and vice versa. Any president who doesn’t communicate is letting America down.
Presidents are best equipped to build personal relationships that can withstand policy differences. Presidents are special, and are accorded great respect by federal legislators. President Lyndon Johnson was a master at persuading others. His support for the Civil Rights Act in 1964, securing votes of previously anti-civil rights senators, made the difference. Passage was secured by his using personal charm and relying on relationships with members of Congress.
The Constitution doesn’t mandate such relationships, but any wise president who expects implementation of his legislative agenda must develop a workable relationship with Congress. Each needs the other, as intended by our Constitution.
Traditionally, Congress and the president have had an antiseptic relationship with the Supreme Court. Court members don’t regularly interact or socialize with Congress or the president.
That’s because the Supreme Court is intended to remain above any perception of political influence in the decisions it renders — and that’s good for the integrity of the American justice system.
Out of respect, some Supreme Court justices attend the president’s annual State of the Union remarks in the House Chamber, but that’s a phenomenon only commenced in the last century. For the first years of the American government, the president, under the Constitution’s Article II, Section 3, delivered the State of the Union in writing to Congress, though some early presidents addressed Congress orally. Delivering State of the Union remarks in person started under President Woodrow Wilson in the early 1900s. Even later presidents delivered written remarks, though. In modern times, Supreme Court justices have been invited to the ceremony. Modern presidents have upheld the tradition, and the high court has been represented at such ceremonies.
But presidents and members of Congress are expected to socialize regularly. Members are routinely invited to the White House for its annual Christmas party and seasonal picnics. At events like these, presidents have the opportunity to mingle with members, and White House staff members get to know congressional committee members and vice versa. Otherwise, opportunities for such interactions are more limited.
Legislating for the good of America isn’t exclusive to one branch of government. The Founding Fathers intended legislative interaction between the president and Congress. The judicial branch was intended as an objective arbiter of the constitutionality of actions taken by the other two. As such, interaction with the judicial branch to avoid the appearance of political influence has been limited and respected by the other two branches.
The Founders were geniuses when it came to crafting a workable government. Limiting the powers of each branch, restricting their interactions and being ultimately subservient to the Constitution have been the hallmark of the American government since 1776. We Americans can only hope that such principles will be upheld in perpetuity.
• George R. Nethercutt, Jr., (R-Washington) was a member of the House of Representatives (1995-2005). He is an author and commentator, as well as founder and chairman of the George Nethercutt Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to fostering civic involvement.
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