The states had strict separation of powers in theory, but a dangerous mixture of powers in practice. Taking the opposite approach, Publius undertook “to show, that unless these departments be so far connected and blended, as to give each a constitutional control over the others, the degree of separation which the maxim requires as essential to a free government, can never in practice be duly maintained.” Theory guided writing of the Constitution; but the text itself is a practical — not a theoretical — document. As Federalist #48 states, “After discriminating, therefore, in theory, the several classes of power, as they may be in their nature be legislative, executive, or judiciary; the next, and most difficult task, is to provided some practical security for each, against the invasion of the others.”
The Constitution does not even mention the term “separation of powers.” Rather, the constitutional text formally establishes separation of powers by setting out the powers of each branch in a separate article: Article I (“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress”); Article II (“The executive Power shall be vested in a President”); and Article III ( “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court and such inferior Courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”). Omitting the term “separation of powers,” into which different persons — especially lawyers — might pour their own meanings, the Constitution instead implants into the text the elements of separation of powers necessary to make it operate in practice, e.g. the President’s qualified veto power.
Rather than “the parchment barriers” on which the state constitutions “principally relied,” the Framers consulted experience and concluded “that some more adequate defence is indispensably necessary for the more feeble, against the more powerful members of the government.” In other words, because the three branches are not naturally equal, simply separating them will not protect the weaker branches. Experience has shown that the legislative branch will dominate the other two. According to Publius, “The legislative department is every where extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.” It may seem surprising to many Americans that the Framers considered the legislative branch to be the most dangerous. Such an attitude is nothing new because it was prevalent at the time of the Constitution’s adoption. As Publius observed, “founders of our republics,,,,seem never to have recollected the danger from legislative usurpations, which, by assembling all power in the same hands, must lead to the same tyranny as is threatened by executive usurpations.”
Then and today, there are those who view the President as the greatest danger to liberty. “But in a representative republic,” Publius writes, “the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and duration of its power.” Compared to Congress, the President may appear to be more powerful due to the unitary character of the Presidency. Later, in Federalist 70, 73, and 74, Publius explains the unitary executive as a protection of the liberty, particularly in time of war.
Publius tells us “where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude; yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department, that the people ought to indulge all their jeolousy, and exhaust all their precaustions.. (emphasis added).
If today the President seems to have more power than the Constitution, it can only be because the Congress has delegated that power and, in most instances, the Supreme Court has upheld those delegations. Since the 1930’s, the three branches of the federal government have generally cooperated in building “the Administrative State,” dominated by bureaucratic agencies. While apparently building the President’s power, however, the Congress has 1) avoided accountability and 2) disguised in its de facto influence over executive agencies. Driving this consolidation of power is an opposition to separation of powers.
The Administrative State incorporates certain “checks and balances,” which as discussed in the last essay differs from separation of powers. Federalist #9, which refers to “legislative balances and checks,” indicates that the term “checks and balances” has a different historical meaning. The Constitution’s version of separation of powers does include a checking function of each branch on the other. Federalist 48 explains the concern to give checking powers to the weaker branches, i.e., the President and the Judiciary. The Administrative State has grown because the Supreme Court has approved legislation giving Congress additional checking powers against the President, thereby weakening the Executive Branch. Congress, for example, has created so-called “independent agencies,” which are independent of the President’s control, but under the de facto control of Congress’s power over agency budgets.
Congress’s enhancement of its own powers through the Administrative State confirms the observations in Federalist 48 about the deviousness of legislative bodies. “The legislative department derives a superiority in our governments [because] [i]ts constitutional powers being at once more extensive, and less susceptible of precise limits, it can, with the greater facility, mask under complicated and indirect measures, the encroachments which it makes on the co-ordinate departments.” (emphasis added).
Publius’s indictment of legislative bodies drew “on our own experience.” The Virginia constitution, for example, required separation of powers; but as Jefferson wrote in his “Notes on the state of Virginia,” quoted by Federalist 48, “no barrier was provided between these several powers.” Publius approved Jefferson’s remark that “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.”
Federalist 48 concluded “that a mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.”
Friday, July 2nd, 2010
John S. Baker, Jr. is the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University.