Celebrating Checks And Balances

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling against the president’s right to get around Congress by making recess appointments. This is frustrating to President Barack Obama at the moment and will undoubtedly aggravate some future Republican president.


The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote that this ruling will “make the government function less well, less justly, and less democratically than it does now.” Disappointed, he concluded, “maybe the problem isn’t the Justices; it’s the Constitution.”

Other unanimous decisions protected cellphones from unwarranted searches by police and the free speech rights of protesters. Each had its detractors.

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The problem, however, is not the Constitution. It’s a political class that resents any limitation on its own power.

In fact, the difficulty these rulings will cause for government officials validates the vital importance of the Constitution.

Additionally, they highlight the wisdom and deep understanding of human nature possessed by the founders of our nation. Drawing upon centuries of pragmatic experience in self-governance, those who built the foundation of our government had a healthy understanding of political reality. “If men were angels,” James Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.” He added, “If angels were to govern men,” there would be no problem. But there are no angels in politics. There are ambitious men and women.

As he drafted the Constitution, Madison understood that voting alone was never going to be enough for holding government accountable. That’s why we have a careful system of checks and balances. Yes, that frustrates presidents and lesser politicians. It’s aggravating for those who want the government to rule without restriction. But it’s not a flaw in the system; it’s the way the process is supposed to work. As Madison put it, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

If it were possible to hold government accountable simply by voting, those in office would never violate our rights. If we could trust politicians, we wouldn’t need formal guarantees. But we can’t.

That’s why the Amendments were approved guaranteeing us freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press, protection from unfair search and seizure, and much more. These natural rights were the constitutional outline of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “Spirit of ’76.” We have the right to make our own choices so long as they are not a burden on society or violating someone else’s rights.

That bedrock belief has frustrated many political leaders who think it’s their job to tell us how to live. President Woodrow Wilson, for example, complained, “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence.” He described the American people as “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish.” No wonder he was troubled by the fact that “reformers” had to win public approval for their schemes.

Many in the political class — from both political parties — hold this view today. That’s the reason we need a healthy system of checks and balances and the Bill of Rights.

Toobin is right that playing by the rules of the Constitution makes it harder for the government to run efficiently. That’s OK. The goal of our political system is not to create a government that works but to create a society that works.

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