Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Four branches of government?

Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma is being ridiculed because he said there are four branches of government. Well, he is probably right, but not for the reasons he attempted to enunciate.

We were taught in civics that there are three branches: executive, judicial and legislative. But a fourth — and one that the public connects with — could be the administrative or bureaucratic portion.

 It is true that it is an arm of the executive branch but it has a life all of its own.

The public most commonly deals with the bureaucracy — at least on the federal level — on matters of Social Security and taxation. The fact is, the bureaucracy — and that word is not used in a derogatory fashion — is critical. For instance, a new report details its incompetence in the area of Social Security disability.

You can see some of this in action. The Obama Administration, in unilaterally postponing the employer mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act, without congressional approval, successfully ordered the bureaucracy  do something it was not authorized to do by Congress — which it did, by the way.

Think of this too. The Congress can propose all the laws it wants to, say, in the environmental realm. But if it does not give the federal Environmental Protection Agency sufficient staffing to enforce the law, what good is the law?

Similarly, the executive branch can direct agencies to enforce or not enforce certain laws. For instance, the federal ban on mere possession of marijuana is generally not enforced.

If you understand the functioning of the bureaucracy (James Q. Wilson wrote a brilliant book on it) you could take some of these sequences to frightening, albeit logical, lengths. For instance, if the Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling could the president order the Federal Reserve to issue and sell bonds to finance the government? Ah, you say: this is illegal. And there is one of the other branches of government would come into play — the judiciary.

Some legal scholars have argued, however, that in this instance the courts could rule that the Congress was legally bound to fund the programs it created. Is that outrageous?

If it happened, one of our federal branches, the Congress, would suddenly seem irrelevant. Would the public care?

That would  make the bureaucracy much more relevant. And it would initiate something that down through the ages has come to have an ignominious reputation — a dictatorship.

Scoff if you will, but a country that no longer cares about genocide in Syria (and elsewhere) may someday become callous toward democracy itself — especially when it conducts itself in the sordid way we are witnessing.


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