by Peter M. Shane, Jacob E. Davis & Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University
Much of my writing on the constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances in operation is directed at the central importance of informal norms to effective government. Chief Justice Hughes famously wrote that “[b]ehind the words of the constitutional provisions are postulates which limit and control.” A subtle, but intimately related point is that our constitutional plan cannot work unless the competing institutions (and those in charge of them) agree on some common overarching values and on certain general understandings as to shared aims and the limits of unilateral power.
If you think the text of the Constitution provides sufficient guidance by itself to keep the government operating, do a few thought experiments. Imagine that the Senate and House had adopted a custom early on that each would unanimously reapprove any legislation returned to Congress with a presidential veto. Nothing in the Constitution forbids such a practice.
Imagine that Congress had read the Constitution to allow the House to impeach presidents for acts of lesser magnitude than “high Crimes or Misdemeanors,” providing that conviction carried some punishment short of removal. Don’t believe the constitutional text permits this? Read it.
These things did not happen, I presume, because Congress recognized that such “customs” would eviscerate the contemplated co-equality of the executive and legislative branches. But not a word of constitutional text would have cast doubt on these practices.
What we are witnessing today in depressing, even contemptible form is a GOP-led congressional subversion of two of the most elementary norms on which our government rests. The first is the proposition that the government should actually function. Agencies Congress has created and to which it has delegated administrative responsibilities should discharge those responsibilities efficiently and effectively. The second is that the president is primarily responsible for achieving effective administration and, toward that end, he is entitled to significant, if not controlling deference by the Senate in his choice of individuals to head government agencies.