John Blake wrote a great piece on political conflict in Washington that can add perspective to the role of checks and balances in American politics. The President (and his party) wants to raise the debt-ceiling and government revenues of the United States to head off historic defaults on American credit around the world. The House of Representatives (headed by the opposing
party) disagrees, wanting to cut federal spending, hoping to avoid increasing
the national debt. The political angles aside, what we have here is a classic example of the system of checks and balances that is built in to the Constitution of the United States.
The powers of the national government are distributed between a bicameral or two-house legislature, the executive branch, and the federal courts. The House and the Senate, though belonging to the same legislative branch of government, each have different terms of office (two year and six year respectively). They have different Constitutional duties (the House can originate new taxes while the Senate can deny Presidential nominations and treaties). And each has different constituencies (smaller House districts verses States). The President on the other hand is the only nationally elected official, thereby armed with the responsibility and opportunity to speak to a national constituency. Add to all of this a political issue that has captured the attention of the media and the people just as a new election season dawns on the horizon and you have what we have now: theatrics, name-calling, posturing, starts and stalls, gridlock, and apparently no end in sight.
The issue of the national debt-ceiling has become the political football that we all have our eyes on. No one political actor, branch, or constituency will win or settle this debate. They can’t. Institutionally, the system of checks and balances is denying both the President and Congress the ability to impose some solution on the other. No single player or branch can claim supremacy over the issue and cancel out the prerogatives of the other. They either find a political solution that they can each sign-off on or they don’t. This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. It’s what we depend on year-in and year-out because it’s what the Framers of the Constitution handed down to us.