Instead of three equal, independent branches, each a check on the others, today’s federal government is, for practical purposes, made up of either two branches or one, depending on how you do the math. The modern presidency has become a giant centrifuge, sucking power from both Congress and the states, making de facto law through regulation and executive order. Yet the growing power of the executive is not merely a case of presidential power lust. For decades, the Supreme Court has consistently held that on most policy questions, foreign as well as domestic, statute trumps fiat (as recently as 2014’s decision Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the court declared that “the executive is not free from the ordinary controls and checks of Congress merely because foreign affairs are at issue”). But if Congress subordinates its constitutional duties to political concerns, what then?
Presidents have managed to accumulate such a prominent place at the top of what is now increasingly a pyramid rather than a horizontal structure of three connected blocks because for more than a generation, Congress has willingly abandoned both its constitutional responsibilities and its ability to effectively serve as a check on the executive even when it wishes to do so.Curiously, the executive branch seems to be lacking capacity, too. Julia Ioffe reports at The Atlantic:
With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, there is little left to do. “If I left before 10 p.m., that was a good day,” said the State staffer of the old days, which used to start at 6:30 in the morning. “Now, I come in at 9, 9:15, and leave by 5:30.” The seeming hostility from the White House, the decades of American foreign-policy tradition being turned on its head, and the days of listlessness are taking a toll on people who are used to channeling their ambition and idealism into the detail-oriented, highly regimented busywork that greases the infinite wheels of a massive bureaucracy. Without it, anxiety has spiked. People aren’t sleeping well. Over a long impromptu lunch one afternoon—“I can meet tomorrow or today, whenever! Do you want to meet right now?”—the staffer told me she too has trouble sleeping now, kept awake by her worries about her job and America’s fading role in the world.
“I used to love my job,” she said. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”