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Friday, December 2, 2011

Newt Gingrich and James Madison

On the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich often affirms his commitment to the ideals of the Founders -- a topic that he discusses at length in his recent book, A Nation Like No Other. Earlier in his career, however, he spoke of bicameralism and the separation of powers as barriers to effective governance. In 1980 (Congressional Record, September 8, pp. 24682-24683), he said of the Founders:
They designed a system which is, frankly, engineering rather than philosophy, which sets out, in a series of very precise steps, ways for achieving goals they believed in, in this case, the goal of dividing power.

Not only could each branch the the other, but without all three agencies, the other body of the House and the Presidency cooperating, nothing was possible. This centrifugal system balanced against centripetal responsibilities diffused power and responsibility among all three agencies. While requiring teamwork to accomplish anything, it makes teamwork very difficult to achieve. As Americans we have wrestled with this problem of diffused power and tried to solve it in several ways over the past 200 years.
It is time to refocus the public's attention on the Constitution, on the need for joint executive-legislative cooperation. If you want change, you have to change the House an the other body, as well as the White House. However, just electing a party in both branches is not enough. The last 4 years have proved that. The same group can in fact claim nominally to be in charge and yet there is no teamwork. They can all wear the same uniform and run in opposite directions. You have to also have a commitment to be a team to govern.
This argument was not consistent with what Madison said in Federalist 51:
This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other -- that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.

For more on the tension between Gingrichism and Madisonianism, see William F. Connelly, Jr., James Madison Rules America.