Double Standards

A cynical, but probably accurate take on the double standard for government officials committing perjury.  One of the problems with the US federal government is that it seems almost impossible to bring people to any kind of accountability to lower federal officials without the President agreeing to it, but since all scandals tarnish the administration, Presidents from both parties have learned the best strategy is to bluster through it.  In theory, Congress has the power to impeach, but since this is almost always viewed as a partisan attack, and removal from office requires the consent of both parties, this is a nonstarter.

Sometimes people who are cyncial of the two party system talk as though this corruption arises because, when push comes to shove, the two parties are actually on the same side.  While that can happen, I think in the current hyper-partisan U.S. mindset that's quite the wrong explanation for tolerating corruption.  In some ways it's the exact opposite.  Because the parties hate each other, they can't view criticism from the opposition as anything other than a cynical attempt to win elections.  Since it is viewed in this way, there is no chance of getting people from both parties on board with any given clean-up act.

For example, when President Clinton was impeached by House Republicans, this was viewed as a shallow, partisan and moralistic attempt to topple a popular president for reasons completely unrelated to his fitness to govern.  Notwithstanding the fact that if Clinton had been the CEO of anything else, he would have been fired for sexual harrassment and jailed for purjury.  But he was the President, and that's what made it seem shallow.

There is actually a serious difficulty here, and I don't mean to suggest that there's nothing to be said for some degree of political immunity.  The ideal situtation would be if all officials, including the President, were fearful of accountability if they engaged in illegal or corrupt activity.  But we also don't want too much political instability.  The removal of an elected President is necessarily a highly political decision, and completely destabilizing to the balance of power and prestige in the entire federal government.  It seems especially unfair to remove a President of one party for something that the other party began.  Practically speaking, we cannot have "no one is above the law" for these reasons.

Another solution is to say that while "the King can do no wrong", his ministers can still be held accountable, even if one suspects the orders came from above.  It's unfair, but it may be the best compromise.  Specific wrongdoing gets eliminated while the President is still free to persue his agenda in all other respects.  But perhaps we are too high-minded to stomach this class divide, and as a result we get a different class divide: the lower level officials also effectively share in the Presidential immunity.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, although Congress is as active as ever in passing bad laws, they seem to be rather ineffective in acting as any kind of check on the Executive branch, perhaps in part due to their extreme unpopularity as an institution.  In Federalist Paper #48, James Madison argued that in a tripartite republic, it was the Legislative Branch which was most to be feared:

In a government where numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of an hereditary monarch, the executive department is very justly regarded as the source of danger, and watched with all the jealousy which a zeal for liberty ought to inspire. In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter. But in a representative republic, where the executive magistracy is carefully limited; both in the extent and the duration of its power; and where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.

The legislative department derives a superiority in our governments from other circumstances. Its constitutional powers being at once more extensive, and less susceptible of precise limits, it can, with the greater facility, mask, under complicated and indirect measures, the encroachments which it makes on the co-ordinate departments. It is not unfrequently a question of real nicety in legislative bodies, whether the operation of a particular measure will, or will not, extend beyond the legislative sphere. On the other side, the executive power being restrained within a narrower compass, and being more simple in its nature, and the judiciary being described by landmarks still less uncertain, projects of usurpation by either of these departments would immediately betray and defeat themselves. Nor is this all: as the legislative department alone has access to the pockets of the people, and has in some constitutions full discretion, and in all a prevailing influence, over the pecuniary rewards of those who fill the other departments, a dependence is thus created in the latter, which gives still greater facility to encroachments of the former.

Hence the need to design a weak, bicameral Congress, and to strengthen the powers of the Executive and Judicial branch.  But I think it is clear that things have now drifted to the point where it is the Executive branch that is too powerful.

I'm speaking abstractly here, but just to avoid misunderstanding: It should go without saying that neither Obama, nor Bush before him, did anything which merits impeachment, by historical standards, and in light of what many other recent Presidents have gotten away with.  We should nevertheless try to restore some kind of constitutional accountability to government.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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