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Much has been made of recent high-profile clashes between the branches of government as if they are unique or rare, but such constitutional standoffs are more the rule than the exception.
At least that’s the opinion of Senate Historian Donald Ritchie and other government experts.
“They are a result of the constitutional separation of powers and have been going on since George Washington was president,” Ritchie said.
“In the past, some of the greatest clashes occurred during the presidencies of Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, peaking with the impeachment efforts against Johnson, Nixon and Clinton,” Ritchie continued. “This fulfills James Madison’s explanation of the separation of powers: ‘Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.’
“One branch is always trying to check another,” Ritchie said. “Not all of the clashes have been between the president and Congress, however. They have also been between the courts, Congress and the president, and between the two houses of Congress.”
Ritchie’s comments come as the Supreme Court is expected to rule as soon as today on whether the Affordable Care Act — the trademark legislative accomplishment of Democrats in the last Congress and President Barack Obama — is constitutional.
Several other clashes are either working through the courts or headed in that direction, including a possible House vote this week to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over the administration’s decision to deny the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee documents by citing executive privilege.
“From at least James Madison’s point of view, this is really how it was expected to work out,” said Steven Smith, who heads the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Each institution will end up having somewhat different interests and assert them,” Smith said. “In due course, these questions were to be settled by the Supreme Court ... and the court ends up being a pretty important arbiter of these disputes.”
Smith noted that branches tend to clash more under divided government, such as what currently exists with a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled House.
But the Supreme Court is not exempt from some of those pressures. For instance, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) are asking the Supreme Court to televise its proceedings.
Leahy and Grassley — the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — wrote to Chief Justice John Roberts last week, urging the court to consider live television coverage of its proceedings when it delivers the health care ruling.