The interactions between the legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch are necessarily complex, especially at the federal level. As the country has grown, and the population has exploded in some ways, it has been necessary for the country’s government to grow in like kind. The US government has a number of functions, and this has led to a rising tide of bureaucracy. People are often critical of the role of the president in overstepping the bounds of his authority, but closer inspection reveals that the interplay between various branches is far more complex than that ground-level analysis would reveal.
As Huber et al (2001) write, the decisions made by congress on oversight have plenty to do with the conditions that exist within the political spectrum at that particular time. While some like to do so, it is not fair to simply pigeonhole congress as acting in one way or another. Simply put, congress acts according to the prevailing political conditions. When there are two congressional houses united under the same party flag, and when that legislature does not like the president of the United States, congress is going to be much more likely to exercise more oversight, leaving less power to agencies to enforce the laws that it has written. This is not something that has been seen recently because, even though Republicans have shown time and again their distaste for Barack Obama, congress has not been unified in quite some time. The House of Representatives and Senate have been controlled by Republicans and Democrats respectively over the last few years, meaning that the conditions have not been right for the sort of congressional arrangement where the legislature seeks to exercise strict control over the enforcement of its laws. If the Senate were controlled by Republicans, one could imagine a situation where the legislature would begin to craft laws in such a way that executive agency power would be severely limited. They would seek, it seems, to take President Obama’s power away to the extent that they could.
McCubbins and Schwartz (1994) wrote that perhaps our traditional understanding of how congress operates is somewhat limited. Their article notes the reality that most people consider congress to offer little oversight on how its laws are applied and enforced. This, the authors say, is because most people only understand oversight through the lens of “police-patrol” oversight. According to the authors, there are at least two different ways to have oversight, and just because congress chose one that is non-conventional does not mean that congress chose to offer no oversight.
Their model – the “fire alarm” model of oversight – describes oversight as allowing citizens and various groups to bring about challenges to how the executive applies the laws. Then, once that has been brought to congress’s attention, there might be a time to re-evaluating the way in which the law has been written. Often times, it seems as if the courts play a major role in providing the impetus for congress to take a hard look at its policies. For instance, when people did not like the way in which the president and his agency applied the Affordable Care Act in terms of businesses with religious objections, they took their concerns to court. Concerned businesses and citizen activist groups, where they were right or wrong, had the opportunity to voice concerns. This, in essence, was using the courts to sound the “fire alarm,” which would subsequently allow congress to make its own determinations on where to go next. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that congress will just re-vamp their law every time the alarm is sounded. It does mean, though, that congress might choose to think hard about the ways in which it writes its laws, and it might see what it could do to bring a law more in line with its intentions. In the case of the recent complaints about the Affordable Care Act, the split nature of the legislature, with Democrats controlling the Senate, has largely helped to restrict the ability of Republican legislatures to re-write the law.
Lipsky (1971) demonstrates the fact that quite often, one of the major problems with groups designed to deal with the public is that they just do not get it. Often, one can point to the fact that government does not understand how to work with under-served populations. Black people and Latino people, for instance, are often subjected to unfair treatment, and much of this can be attributed to the fact that there are real problems of racism within the people who run various levels of government. Recently, the events in Ferguson, Missouri provide support for the idea that the individual members of police forces might operate with their own inherent racial biases. The dialogue surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown also shows that when people believe the individuals involved in an agency to be “racist” or otherwise insensitive, there is a tendency to see the entire institution as being racist. The characteristics of the individual get imparted onto the institution itself, which can erode the trust that the public has in the institution to get the job done. While the author here seems to in some ways dispute the claims that the individuals working in these jobs are racist, that is a position that one could easily disagree with today.
Perhaps Lipsky’s thesis can applied to the state courts that are discussed by Hall (2008) in her work. She notes that judges in many states have “well-defined” political biases that help them determine the law. What this suggests, then, is that judges in some cases can act according to self-interest rather than the law, and in doing so, they can show an inability to properly serve the population that they are charged with serving. This is an excellent example of an important state-level body incapable of truly understanding its duty toward the people.