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Government shutdown shows our Constitution at work

January 12, 2019

Government shutdowns, while never preferable, provide an opportunity to examine our republic’s framework. No one applauds a context where disagreements are so profound that the government can no longer function. Yet it also exemplifies the success of our Constitution.

Our Founding Fathers were aware of how corruption and influences contrary to the public good may infiltrate a government.

“If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself,” as stated in Federalist No. 51.

Special interest groups, donors, members of political factions and those who wield astounding influence often detract from the interests of both the minority as well as the majority.

There was mindfulness of that human fallibility during the Constitutional Convention and ratification period. The perception was that the War for Independence was due to a corrupt government. Concentrated power led to words prevalent in that era’s rhetoric, such as despotism, corruption and tyranny.

Consequently, power within the Constitution was distributed to more fully represent those who otherwise might lack a voice. This was accomplished in several ways, one being the creation of the three branches and their distinct roles.

James Madison noted in Federalist No. 47, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

The founders placed a significant emphasis on the role of the legislative branch, and their pragmatism is why two different houses were created in Congress.

Federalist No. 51 also explained the need for the legislature to check its own power and how it would. “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.”

The Constitutional Convention made all parts of government independent, as well as dependent on one another. The effect is that power is diluted, resulting in a greater probability that a plurality, both within the federal government and those constituents outside of it, will be influential.

One must remain cognizant that government workers are impacted by this less-than-desirable effect of our revered system. Shutdowns were obviously not the intent of the founders. The Constitution itself was a compromise.

Nevertheless, temporary stalemates in some form have always been inherent in such a framework, as any new legislation requires collaboration and concessions when there is a separation of powers.

Independence in our branches offers the ability to dissent and propose diverse courses of action, which in turn reinforces our democratic ideals. That ideological and legal framework of the late 18th century endures.

The irony is that while we feel elements of failure and despair during a shutdown, it is also illustration of the fundamental brilliance of our republic.

Dale Schlundt holds a graduate degree in adult education with a concentration in history from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He has taught at Northwest Vista College and Our Lady of the Lake University. He is a faculty member at Palo Alto College and co-chair for the Texas Regional Alignment Network.

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