I firmly believe that God, by whatever name you call Him or Her, touched and inspired the men who wrote the Constitution.
Upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman, “Sir, what have you given us?” His answer, “A Republic, Ma’am, if you can keep it.”
John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
In 1787 our Founding Fathers devised a document of nine pages and 4,543 words that clearly define the structure and responsibilities of our federal government.
But it is much, much more than that.
When you look at the concepts and the “why’s” behind why the Constitution was written the way it was, that’s where the wonder and awe really begins. There are several major points that many people do not know or understand about the Constitution.
First, this is the first document in human history to create and define a government which recognizes that the true political power exists with the People, the Citizens, the common man, rather than the government. And while the government exerts control over the People, is actually subservient to them.
Second, the Constitution is a document written to recognize the natural human condition to always consolidate and concentrate power. The Constitution attempts to thwart this by making each part independent, yet simultaneously interdependent and at odds with the other parts of government. Each branch has its’ own duties and powers. It must use those powers in conjunction with the other branches to accomplish their goals. Likewise, a branch can hinder (but not fully stop) the other branches.
Third, a major point that escapes most people today is the federal government was meant only to regulate the interactions between the States and relations with other countries. The relations between Citizens and the federal government were to be very limited.
Fourth, the Constitution clearly defines the powers and duties for each branch of the federal government, limiting those powers to what is declared in the Constitution. The Constitution is very specific in what the federal government can do. The general concept when it was written was, “If the Constitution doesn’t declare that a branch has this power, the government cannot do it.” Today, it’s a case of, “The Constitution doesn’t say I can’t, so this must mean I can…”
In today’s terminology, there are three stakeholders involved with the Constitution and the federal government.
The stakeholders are the People, the State governments and the federal government itself. The People are the first stakeholder, because all power is derived from the consent of the governed, even the State governments operate under that mandate. The State governments are the second stakeholder, because we were at our founding 13 independent countries, who gave up some of their power and authority to the federal government under the Articles of Confederation, then to the government under the Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, provide for the common defense, etc. and the last stakeholder is the federal government itself, which certainly needs to have a say in how it runs things.
Hopefully most Citizens can articulate the names of the three branches of the federal government, namely the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial. The Citizens may not know what they do, but they can name them.
The Legislative has total power to write laws. It requires a majority agreement within both the House and Senate to pass a bill into a law. It requires a 2/3rds vote of the House and Senate to override a Veto from the President.
The Legislative branch is composed of a bi-cameral legislature, meaning two separate bodies.
The House represents the People who directly elect their representatives. Their primary power is total control of the purse strings. All bills spending or raising money must originate in the House. The House also has the power to impeach the President, federal judges and appointed Executive branch officials. With every Representative up for election every two years, the makeup and sentiment of the House can radically change in one election according to the whims of the people.
The Senate, up until the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, represented the State governments which elected Senators through a vote in that States’ Legislature. Since 1913, the people of each state directly elect their Senators, which has turned the Senate into a “super district” Representative and cut the state governments out of being a stakeholder. The Senate has the power to provide “advise and consent” to the President by approving (or denying) all treaties with foreign governments, approving of all federal judges and senior Executive Branch officials. If someone (President, judge or appointed Executive branch official) is impeached by a simple majority vote in the House, they are removed from office on a 2/3rds vote of the Senate.
The Senate is considered “the cooling saucer” to the “hot cup” of the House. Senators are elected for 6 years terms and only 1/3rd of the Senate is up for reelection in any given federal election. So while the makeup of the House can significantly change in a single election, it takes two or even three election cycles for the Senate to substantially change.
The Executive Branch, led by the President, enforces the laws as set forth by the Legislative Branch, The President is for lack of a better term, CEO of United States, Inc. while the Congress is the Board of Directors. The president can say deny a law passed by Congress by the use of his Veto power. The Congress can override (or functionally prevent) a presidential veto with a 2/3rds majority in each house.
The various agencies of the Executive Branch (EPA, DOJ, FBI, BATF, DOL, HHS and so on) must be created and funded by legislation from Congress. The President lacks the ability to create agencies on his own. These agencies are then charged with enforcing the laws as set forth by Congress that fall under their responsibility (The EPA does not regulate firearm sales, Health and Human Services do not regulate banking, etc.). These agencies are not supposed to have the authority to create regulations that they can enforce. The fact that they do is a whole ‘nother essay.
The President is elected through the Electoral College, not by the voting of the People. A majority of voters in each state elect a slate of delegates equal to the Representatives and Senators for that State (anywhere from three to fifty-seven). Most States have an “all or nothing” delegate allocation, Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system, electing delegates by Congressional district, the two votes representing the Senators are by who won the most Congressional delegates. Those delegates then vote for president.
If no candidate gets a simple majority of Electoral College votes (which is currently 270), then voting falls to the House. The House then has a vote of the Representatives from each state. Whomever wins the majority of Representatives in that state, the state gets to cast one vote for that candidate. This is a modified EC, voting by the will of that State to give a vote for a candidate. If there is a tie, the process is repeated until a winner is decided. By this method, the interests of the People and the States work together to decide who heads the Executive Branch.
The third branch, the Judiciary, decides if laws are in-line with the Constitution or not. The Courts cannot rule on a law unless a complaint has been made against the law or other issue. The Constitution only specifies that there will be a Supreme Court, not how many members and so on. The lesser federal courts and their particulars (areas of jurisdiction, number of judges on each court, etc.) are set by Congress. For all federal Courts, the President must nominate someone to the position and the Senate confirms with a majority vote.
Another wonderful concept of the Constitution is that it can be changed. Article V of the Constitution allows for the two ways it can be done.
The first method states that a proposed Amendment must pass both houses of Congress with a 2/3rds vote, then 3/4th of the State Legislatures must also vote for the Amendment. The President doesn’t get a way to stop it since the 2/3rds “supermajority” is Veto-proof anyway.
The second way provides for a State-initiated “Constitutional Convention” where the States can change the Constitution without the federal government having a say in it at all. That also requires 3/4ths of the States to ratify any Amendments.
As of today, we have amended the Constitution 17 times. The first ten, the Bill of Rights, were enacted all at once. The 27th Amendment was actually proposed with the Bill of Rights, however was not ratified until 1992.
Only the Eighteenth Amendment, known as Prohibition, was ever overturned, which was done by passing the 21st Amendment.
With the 2000 win of Bush 43 and the 2016 win by Trump, both of whom did not have the majority of the popular vote but won where it counted (in the Electoral College), there have been calls to abolish the EC, which is a very, very bad idea. It’s a bad idea for the same reason why each state has two Senators. This was so the states with large populations (California, Texas, New York and so on) could not bully the smaller states (Montana, Hawaii, etc.).
In the end, the federal government is a government of the state governments and (supposedly) little direct contact with the citizens. If the Constitution does not explicitly say that a branch has the authority to do something, it does not have the authority to do it. The federal government is composed of a triumvirate of the People, the State governments and the federal government. Each stakeholder can carry out its’ duties and exercise its powers, but only with the consent of the other stakeholders or branches.
Gridlock (i.e. it is hard to do anything) is a design feature, not a bug of the Constitution. Each stakeholder must work with the others to accomplish anything of significance, while trying to preserve its’ own power and authority.