The Blog

NEWT, THE ANTI-FEDERALIST

11:00 PM, Dec 1, 1996 • By WILLIAM F. CONNELLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Paradoxically, the separation of powers not only provides for the institutional independence of the president and Congress, but simultaneously makes them dependent on each other. Madison understood that different institutions do different things. This differentiation of functions at the heart of the separation of powers makes each branch better at doing its own thing. The separation of powers limits the abuse of power, but it also provides for the effective use of power. Finally, the competition between the two political branches can inject energy into the policy process.


We hear much today about how both Democrats and Republicans have been " chastened" and how they've "learned" from the failings of the 103rd and 104th Congresses. Both parties can, and should, learn a great deal by heeding the separation of powers. Note the natural rhythm of elections in the 1990s: Had George Bush not lost the White House in 1992, House Republicans would not have won a majority in 1994. Had they not won in 1994, Clinton's second two years would have been as dismal (and as liberal) as his first two years. And Clinton's 1996 victory virtually guarantees substantial gains for congressional Republicans in 1998.


Given the House GOP's erstwhile fondness for revolutionary rhetoric, an apt description of the 1996 election might be Lenin's "two steps forward, one step back." Or, as that famous House Republican revolutionary Sonny Bono might say, "The beat goes on." The "six-year itch" will almost certainly strengthen GOP control of Congress beyond the 1998 midterm elections.


Ideas matter. Ideas have practical political consequences, especially ideas embodied in our constitutional institutions. Following the 1996 election, Bill Clinton is president, Newt Gingrich is speaker, and James Madison still rules America.




William F. Connelly, Jr. is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. He co-authored with John J. Pitney, Jr. Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House.