Sometimes I stay “out” for two classes. For example, I recently had a Tuesday-Friday in the Washington DC area and then a Monday-Thursday near Boston. Rather than flying home to Arizona on a Saturday, doing the laundry and then flying back to the east coast and Boston on Sunday, I visited a local laundromat Friday night, did some sightseeing on Saturday and Sunday morning, and then flew up to Boston on Sunday. By skipping that round trip to Arizona and back, the company saved more than enough to pay for the weekend expenses, I got some additional rest, and I got to do some sightseeing.
Washington DC is a showcase any time of year but spring and fall are the best. While this particular weekend was a tad early for fall weather, it was late enough in the season that summer’s heat and humidity were gone. It was, plain and simple, a spectacular weekend.
Early Saturday morning, I set my goal to walk the mall from end to end and, over the course of it, visit the “homes” of the three interdependent cornerstones of government in the United States: the presidential White House, the Congress and the Supreme Court.
Part 1: The President
The President is called our “Chief Executive.” Much of what the President does is in managing the day-to-day operation of the country. Although it is true that most of the details are left to others, the bottom line is that we look to the President first to take action when something happens. He “leads” the response to events that happen.
To facilitate this, the president has been granted certain “emergency powers” by the Congress and, by not ruling them as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has implicitly agreed. The “Presidential powers” are, thusly, defined by the Congress and the Supreme Court. Using those powers, the President can initiate actions to, for example, defend the country but only within a limited scope and time frame. But beyond those limited powers, the President has to get the approval of first the Congress, and then by not ruling their collective actions as un-consitutional, the Supreme Court must also agree.
Only by agreement of the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court, can any law be made to persist for a long time in the United States. Failing that agreement, the “status quo” reigns.
Change is hard, intentionally so.
Part 2: The Congress
Congress moves much slower than the President but what they do affects things for much longer periods. For example, when the President’s reaction is to spend federal funds for disaster relief or to defend the country from an armed attack, he must then petition Congress for longer term and greater financial support.
Between its two parts, the House and the Senate, Congress creates new laws as befit the changing times. Either part can initiate a new bill that may eventually become law but before it leaves the Congress, both the House and the Senate, must approve it. With all the commitee studies, the debating and amending, the jockeying for votes and so forth, creating a new law is a very time-consuming affair.
Compared to the President, the US Congress seems to move very slowly. This is how it was designed. The Congress, with its two parts, bills, discussions, voting, and then needing the approval of the other half, is supposed to be slow. Because its actions last for a very long time, the designers of our government wanted it to take a long time, and a lot of effort, for Congress to create a change.
Part 3: The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court functions, in a sense, in a negative manner. It does not initiate new laws. It does not respond to disasters. Instead, the Supreme Court reviews laws that were created by the Congress and then approved by the President, or laws created by individual state governments, or laws originally created by even more localized governing agencies that have propogated out to national importance. And after hearing arguments on the issues and deliberating amongst themselves, the Supreme Court may pronounce specific laws as being un-constitutional and, therefore, null and void.
No matter who makes a new law or who approves it, if the Supreme Court decides by a majority of its justices that a law does not conform to the intentions of the founders of this country, that law is overturned.
This is an incredible power carried out by nine individuals who are elected for life. Barring extreme circumstances, a Justice of the Supreme Court can remain “on the bench” as long as he or she desires.
When a vacancy exists, either through death or by voluntary or sometimes coerced retirement of one of the Justices, it is up to the President and the Congress to designate a replacement. And, as before, Congress can reject a President’s nomination, or the House and the Senate may fail to agree and, again, fail to “affirm” the President’s nomination.
But even when a Justice is seated on the court, his or her powers are limited to stopping laws, never to creating them. The Supreme Court cannot make new laws. It cannot wage war. Nor can it send aid to the victims of some natural disaster. The Supreme Court “balances” the President and Congress by stopping them. It can only say, “No.”
Looking East Along the Mall
Looking east from the Lincoln Memorial, you see several monuments with the White House off to the left and Congress in the distance. The Supreme Court is also there but in the background in both a figurative and a literal sense: it’s building is behind the Congressional dome.
And looking at this long and broad expanse of space, I’m also struck with the long, broad and sometimes tumultuous history of the United States. The view across the mall looks green, healthy and full of life, but it is only so through the work of many and over a long period of time.
The history of the United States is the same way. It may look green, healthy and full of life, but getting there, and staying there, are fraught with hazard. It is, as they say, “fragile.”
Indeed, there are a few periods in our history where “the United States” almost died. The first was shortly after it began, as a loose confederation of independent states but without any significant “federal” government. This first near demise was after the so-called “United States” had won their independence from Great Britain but then failed to make payments on the loans from other governments that financed the rebellion. These other countries expected to be repaid at the agreed upon rates but, basically, the individual states just didn’t do it. There was no central “us” to be held responsible. Instead, it was up to each state to pay its portion, and that’s where things came appart. After considerable squabbling over who was to pay how much and in what form and to whom, the leaders of this early confederation of the United States realized they (collectively) weren’t going to be able to make the payments, and that the new country was in serious danger of collapse. That realization motivated the creation of what we now know as the “Federal Government.” How that federal government works is what a later document, the Constitution, is all about.
The second near destruction of the union of these United States took place prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election. Things were collapsing before he took office. Several states had already abandoned the “United” States, brought their representatives home, formed a new “union” with other break-away states and, in defiance, created a new country.
With the country already fractured, Lincoln’s first job was, therefore, to preserve the union by returning the rebellious states to the larger union. Although slavery was a significant element in the picture, only later did Lincoln issue a Proclamation and, working through the House and the Senate of the then anti-slavery dominated Congress, make slavery illegal.
Sweeping changes such as this are rare. And it was only through the once-in-our-history application of force that this particular change was made into the law of the land. The slavery-approving Southern states were defeated, forced back into the Union and, in so doing, forced to release their slaves.
If you ask how could things get this bad without someone doing something sooner, it’s because that is how the government is supposed to work. It is supposed to move slowly. It is set up in three branches that are intended to wrestle, disagree and keep each other from moving too quickly.
In a word, the government of the United States is supposed to be slow. The founders set it up so that each of these three elements, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial branches, keeps the other two from taking over. You’ve heard of a “Mexican stand-off” where two parties face each other with guns drawn and neither can shoot without getting shot in return? Well, the US Government is a lot like that except there are three parties, with a gun in each hand aimed at each of the other two. Each element can slow or veto both of the other two. Only when all three are in agreement can new laws and actions go into effect.
Abraham Lincoln’s statue sits in his monument at the western edge of the mall. His eyes gaze out across the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument with the White House sheltered in the trees to the left but with the Congressional dome in the distance and the Supreme Court just beyond. As such, visitors can walk to and visit these three cornerstones of the United States government in less than one hour.
But putting together such a government took century upon century of trial and error. And I too would have to agree with Winston Churchill who said,
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Lincoln’s genius was in understanding the structure of the system in which he had to operate, maintaining his personal sense of right and wrong, and choosing to remain within the system to both pull the union back together and, ultimately, do what was right.
Other men, his contemporaries, had chosen to give up and rip it asunder.
Lincoln chose to say, “No.” He proceeded to re-assemble, by force, the country.
Today, his view from that chair at the west end of the Mall now spans a century and a half. He has seen the slow playing out of the ramifications of his Emancipation Proclammation, the development of US involvement in affairs of the world, and the larger consequences, both positive and negative, of the US’s successes and how that contributes to the views of those outside as well as inside this country.
“Tumultuous” is an apt word. And for the havoc, the violence, the war and the blood that has been lost in all of them, “Birth of a Nation” is too small an idea.
For the nation of the United States was not born once. Instead, it has been born and reborn, each time with terrible struggle, often with blood shed and loss of life, over and over again.
This country was not born in the late 1700s. What was created then was a structure by which the nation re-births itself periodically. That period is not tied to the election of a President or members of Congress, nor to the election by the President and Congress of a new person to sit on the Supreme Court.
Instead, the United States is re-born when needs, sometimes expressed in violence, dictate.
The structure of rules crafted through the Constitution give us a way of dealing with change without having to throw everything out and start over. That fundamental way of doing things is its true value. The invention of these three branches of government, often struggling against each other, but ultimately making carefully crafted adaptations to the changing world, is what allows this profoundly changing country to continue to call itself “The United States.”
As I watched the football games being played out on a sunny Saturday afternoon on the nation’s Mall, all this history swirled around me as I walked. I spoke with a Vietnam Veteran at a water fountain. I listened to veterans of the Korean War speak at that memorial. And I gazed about at the beauty of the World War II memorial, imagining but admittedly unable to comprehend the horror and sacrifice it symbolized.
To those who struggled to preserve this country, I owe a debt beyond any measure I could ever repay. And from my well-sheltered, well-protected, and well-nourished life, I also know I am in terrible ignorance of the cost they paid. As a father and a grandfather, I can only hope that they had the same wishes that I have for my children and grandchildren, and that is to live in peace, in admitted ignorance of the horrors they don’t need to know.
In another few weeks, we will have elected a new President.
I’d be real interested to hear, were he actually able to witness all these years and all the changes that have transpired, what Abe’s thoughts might be.
But I also know that, ultimately, the future is ours to make. What Abe might think would be interesting but it is for us to say what we will do in each new moment.
It is up to us to understand the system within which we live, to decide what is right or wrong as we see fit, and to try and convince others of what we should do as a collective nation.
In November, I will vote to preserve the Union. Abe did too. And it was bloody. I pray we can avoid such a costly expense for the changes that are ahead.
Abe’s statue will see the consequences of our choices but, like us, it is only with the passage of time, sometimes measured in decades or even centuries, that anyone will know if a vote was cast wisely or not.
But I am sure that Abraham Lincoln would agree with the following fervent wish:
God help us.
We are free to choose.
May we do so wisely.