Congressional Government

Author:Keith E. Whittington

Page 499

In creating the Constitution, the Framers created a functional SEPARATION OF POWERS, with separate institutions exercising the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The Constitution also creates a system of CHECKS AND BALANCES, however, with each of the three branches participating in the functions of the others to some degree. In creating this system, the Framers did not specify exactly how much power the various branches were to have relative to one another. As a consequence, the precise balance of power has been left to subsequent historical development.

The late nineteenth century was a period of legislative dominance of the federal government. In 1885, a young WOODROW WILSON described the workings of the constitutional system as "congressional government." The label has stuck as a description of the federal government from roughly 1867 to the turn of the century. This system did not arise by accident. It was a product of the political and constitutional struggles of the CIVIL WAR. The victorious REPUBLICAN PARTY was largely composed of former Whigs, who had originally organized in the 1830s in opposition to the strong presidency of ANDREW JACKSON, or "King Andy." Their preference for congressional leadership, however, was delayed by the exigencies of civil war, which required giving extraordinary powers to the Republican President ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Lincoln's death and disagreements with his successor, ANDREW JOHNSON, led Congress to take legislative control of RECONSTRUCTION. For the first time, Congress overrode a significant presidential veto. Soon, Congress routinely overrode Johnson's vetoes, before eventually attempting to remove him from office through an IMPEACHMENT in 1867 for his resistance to congressional policy.

After the Johnson impeachment (and despite his acquittal), Presidents were on the political defensive and Congress effectively dictated national policy. Executive appointments were a crucial source of political power in the nineteenth century, as well as an important policy decision. In sharp contrast to the modern deference to presidential nominations, the postbellum U.S. SENATE aggressively used its confirmation powers to force Presidents to select officials who were friendly to Congress. At the same time, civil service reforms removed a potential tool for rewarding party loyalists from congressional party leaders, but it also took away a political weapon that earlier Presidents...

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