The US federal government is divided up into a variety of institutions, with the three main “branches” of government designed to compete against each other. Theoretically, these three branches were initially thought to place checks on the other branches of government, thus minimizing abuses of power by the federal government overall.
Things haven’t really worked out that way. Thanks to the rise of political parties, coordination between the branches — along party lines — has often replaced competition between the branches. Moreover, as political parties vie for the a controlling majority in the various branches, they are loath to limit the power of these institutions lest these partisans limit their own power in the process. Nor do the different branches represent different socio-economic groups in the manner imagined by John Adams in his Defense of the Constitutions.
So weakened had this imagined separation of powers become by the time of the New Deal that Franklin Roosevelt asserted during the days of his court-packing scheme that the various branches of government existed to work together, rather than to mutually obstruct each other. In a 1937 “fireside chat,” Roosevelt claimed the federal government is
a three-horse team provided by the Constitution to the American people so that their field might be plowed. The three horses are, of course, the three branches of government – the Congress, the Executive and the Courts. Two of the horses are pulling in unison today; the third is not.
FDR’s point was that the Supreme Court was being obstructionist, and it ought to conform itself to the other two branches of government, since it was the duty of each branch to assist the other branches in “plowing the field.”
The fact many people would find this theory remotely plausible speaks to the magnitude of the public’s disregard for the notion the division of the federal government into branches was supposed to prevent government action, not facilitate it.
Not All Branches Are Equally Terrible
From Worst to Least-Awful
Since the New Deal, and especially since 9/11, I suggest this fourth branch of government has actually become the most dangerous one. Ranking the branches of government from the worst to least bad, it looks like this:
The Permanent Administrative State
The Supreme Court