The Founders of the American Republic in 1789 established three branches of government -- Congress, the presidency and the judiciary -- to uphold representative democracy in the new nation. After over more than 200 years, these great institutions of governance, housed in their magnificent buildings, bespeak permanence.
But deep within, these seemingly indestructible pillars of the Constitution are threatened by structural flaws. Nowhere is the threat greater than in the case of the system of checks and balances that are the key means the branches use to maintain institutional power.
Each branch must be able to check the others, including blocking them from usurping its own core functions.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Garry Wills has indicated that the branches "have to fight off encroachment" so the executive can be stopped from legislating and Congress from seeking to execute.
These checks and balances that are at the heart of a viable American system of government must have a continuing balance of power among the branches in order to work. If not, a weaker branch will be unable to fight off encroachment.
Today, however, there exists more imbalance than at any time in the post-World War II era. Greater power in the institutional relationship between Congress and the president has accrued to the Bush administration. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., observed in the book, "Losing America," published this year: "The Bush team never tires in its drive to usurp congressional control of funding. (While Congress is) unwilling to assert its power, cowed, timid and deferential toward the Bush administration, a virtual paralytic."
A secretive, authoritarian White House runs the executive agencies with an iron hand, keeping them from communicating with Congress as much as possible.
In a particularly egregious case, political appointee Thomas Scully, then the head of the Medicare and Medicaid agency, threatened to fire Medicare's chief actuary, careerist Richard Foster, if he met Congress' request to provide his projected costs for Bush's proposed drug coverage legislation.
Such information was critical for sensible decision-making in that Foster's projections much exceeded the costs the administration set out in the proposed Medicare legislation. Lawmakers in both parties indicated they would not have voted for the bill if the higher cost projection had been known.
Robert Pear reported in the Sept. 8 New York Times that a legal ruling found that "Scully's threats to the actuary were 'a prime example of what Congress was attempting to prohibit' when it outlawed 'gag rules.' "
Keeping federal employees from communicating information requested by Congress that it must have to exercise informed policy choices undermines the checks and balances that are central to the constitutional process.
Congress is in intensive care, hurt by a power-hungry president, but suffering more from self-inflicted wounds. Its dysfunctional polarization has led members to focus on their own re-election and on being in the majority party. They flee the hard work of maintaining the institution's prestige and power.
Polarization has also to abandon any notions of bipartisanship or serious debate seeking compromise. In passing legislation including the Medicare bill, Republicans barred Democrats from the conference committees or let in a few who favored the legislation.
In conference committee sessions where usually only differences in bills are considered, Republicans have added new provisions that only their leadership has seen.
The most intense polarization between the political parties in the postwar years has played into President Bush's hands as the Republican congressional leadership has put winning above concern for the institution itself or the quality of the legislation.
Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser wrote in a March 2004 article: "In fundamental ways that have gone largely unrecognized, Congress has become less vigilant, less proud and protective of its own prerogatives and less important to the conduct of the American government than at any time in decades."
Congress has been so battered from without and within that it has become a moribund institution. The last claim does not deny the obvious in that party leaders still exercise power over members, or that the latter still raise ridiculous sums of campaign funds and run for president.
Yet, they now go about their business in a burnt-out structure in institutional, not architectural terms. Byrd, who has served in Congress since 1952 and the Senate since 1958, wrote: "The Constitution's careful separation of powers has been breached, and its checks and balances circumvented."
Despite these system-threatening changes, the public has hardly noticed the deterioration and misshaping of the institutions of governance over the past quarter-century. Most people focus exclusively on the politicians and their policies, not their institutions.
This inattention has kept most Americans from recognizing the profound changes that have intensified under George W. Bush to a point where the checks and balances now work so poorly that democracy and liberty are threatened by the most undemocratic presidency since 1789.
Walter Williams is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs and is the author of "Reaganism and the Death of Representative Democracy."
©1996-2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer