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Constitution, US Politics

Does the US Constitution provide a framework for effective government?


 This is, like most questions in politics, debatable.

  1. There is no doubt that the oldest codified Constitution still provides the framework for US governance and where change has been needed the document has been amended – either formally or re-interpreted via the courts to ensure the document remains relevant today. Formal amendments such as the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery or crucial court decisions such as Brown vs Board of Education,Topekahelping signal the end of racial segregation schools, have been achieved within the framework of the US Constitution.
  2. The ‘framework’ is still the same as it was in 1789 and this must be a sign of effective government:
  1. Federalism
  2. Separation of powers
  3. Limits on government & protection of individual freedoms

The federal framework provided a complex but successful two tier government in theUSthat has allowed the states to maintain much control over their own affairs whilst allowing the federal government to regulate commerce and the economy to the extent where theUSAbecame the world’s leading superpower. It could be argued that this is an example of ‘effective’ government. The Constitution also provided for the accession of new states and this enabled theUSto expand westward and grow into a great world power.

The separation of powers espoused most earnestly by James Madison was, and is, an effective mechanism to protect liberty… “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person…[or] if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.” The so-called checks & balances mean that each branch of government interacts with each other. The framers sought to guarantee that the branches would each use their checks as weapons against the other branches. They secured this by providing them each different constituencies and therefore different pressures and perspectives on what the government should do (your essay should provide brief analysis of the different constituencies). This separation of power has effectively prevented one branch of government becoming too powerful; particularly true in the instance of divided government, as has been the case for the majority of the time since 1969.Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 is an example of the restrictions on a President.

The limits placed on government by federalism and the separation of powers principles have provided an effective framework in keeping the government from coercing the individual. A further example is the Bill of Rights and its protections – particularly since the 14th Amendment expanded the Bill of Rights restrictions to the state governments. US Citizens’ ‘rights’ are codified in a single document.

  1. The very things that provide a framework for limits on the government are what also lead to it ineffectiveness.
    1. Federalism – yes, theUShas grown into a world power, but most substantially after the growth in federal & presidential authority after 1937 and the onset of Cold War and the growth in military intervention since 1945. The conflict between states’ and federal rights rages on, and even though federal government is winning that battle it often leads to lengthy protracted court cases to get issues settled e.g. the Civil Rights Acts passed by Congress were willfully ignored by many states and their police forces – such delays cannot be deemed effective governance. At times of crisis confusion over the role federal government can lead to inaction or slow action.New Orleansbemoaned Bush’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
    2. The separation of powers has neutered each government branch too much. The divided scenario is a nightmare for a President requiring swift action. Bill Clinton could not even pass his budget and this resulted in a federal government shutdown in 1995 where civil servants and government employees did not get paid. Barack Obama laboured for two years to pass his signature Healthcare Reform providing insurance coverage for 32m Americans who wouldn’t have it, but it was a very watered down Act from what he wanted. Such time and energy, to produce a compromise that none are ‘happy’ with is not effective governance. Obama is going through the same thing now with his jobs Bill – Republicans refuse to let him increase taxes on US millionaires and reduce taxes on the middle to lower classes. The delays over legislation prevent action at a time when the economy needs radical action. This is often referred to as gridlock.
    3. Yes the B of R does protect the rights of the individual and, for example, because of first amendment freedoms, Americans can burn the USflag…but what about periods of national hysteria? During the second world war Japanese/US citizens were interned and freedoms suspended; during the 1950s suspected Communists were hunted down and arrested; after 9/11 Muslims suffered the same fate: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/02/after-9-11-muslim-arab-american-stories
  2. The USis currently embarking on another presidential campaign – the Constitution outlined the framework for this and it still works even if the Electoral College system is a little weird. The US Congress will also be re-elected, giving voters the chance to have their say again on its performance. This is effective at keeping Congressmen on their toes and ensuring they represent their constitutions – one person’s legislative gridlock is another persons protection?
  3. Even if we argue that the Constitution does breed gridlock & ineffective governance it does contain within its provisions, the mechanisms to be amended.e.g. Roosevelt’s presidency led to a desire to limit a president to two terms – this was passed. Again, however, it can be argued that the super majorities required for amendment make it very difficult and this is why only fifteen meaningful amendments have been passed since the Bill of Rights in 1791 (excluding the two prohibition amendments)!!



  1. Pingback: Relevance of US Constitution… « Government & Politics A-level - November 3, 2011

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