In government, as in life, things don’t always go according to plan. Bills stall, disagreements cause gridlock, tax bills, like the one introduced this week by President Trump, are passed back and forth, changed and debated.
Things rarely run smoothly, and some sometimes, they’re even dramatic. Congress can shut down the government. The Supreme Court can spend nearly a year with eight justices instead of nine.
Rules are broken and changed, and it affects everyone living in the U.S.
Marketplace Weekend spoke to three experts about the three branches of government — legislative, judicial and executive — about what happens when the rules change in government.
The Legislative Branch
Congress changes the rules that govern its operations all the time. This year, we saw the Senate change the rules surrounding the filibuster so that Republicans could push through President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.
“It’s hard to say who started this,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia. “It tends to get a little worse each Congress, in terms of upping the ante, but once rules and precedents don’t have a role, or there’s no honoring of them, there’s no boundries. It becomes the Wild West. And majorities do whatever they can get away with.”
The Judicial Branch
If there’s one branch of government tailor made to play by the rules, it’s the judiciary. Judges are appointed to uphold and interpret pretty strict rules. But Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said even for the highest courts, things aren’t always cut and dry.
When the Supreme Court isn’t operating at full capacity, for example, it takes fewer cases, and lower court rulings stand. Those choices — to decline a case, to let a ruling stand without addressing it from the highest possible platform — affect U.S. citizens.
“We need the Supreme Court to help interpret the Constitution,” Levinson said, “and we need the Supreme Court to help solve circuit splits, where some circuit in the country says ‘Yes, this is permissible,’ another circuit says ‘No, it isn’t.’ We need the Supreme Court to help us know what the law of the federal land is.”
The Executive Branch
The executive branch is modeled on who is president, and even if the president gets along with Congress, there’s often an attempt to broaden executive power. Kate Shaw, professor at Cardozo School of Law, said even though it’s frequently not as obvious as legislation or a court ruling, presidential power — and presidential rule-changing — has a big impact on the American people.
Shaw said much of the president’s power is “rhetorical,” and lies in the ability to galvanize public opinion, resulting in a push for change directed at Congress.
“A lot of things have to happen before presidential directives impact people’s lives,” Shaw said. Even when a president issues an executive order, they do so with some legal standing, and that order will often be reviewed, or checked, by Congress or the courts.
But executive power can also expand, especially where there’s disagreement.
“Certainly when you have an era of congressional gridlock, which is not brand new but is certainly new in a broad historical context, the power of the presidency rises accordingly,” Shaw said.”The president is sort of nimble, and there is concentrated power in the presidency … but there are still constitutional limits on what the president can do.”
To listen to our full rundown of government rule-breaking, tune in using the audio player above.