The following conversation takes place in the future, with one of the most reputed founders of the American republic, James Madison Jnr. He not only served as the fourth president of the United States but also played an impeccable role in the drafting of the constitution, bringing amendments to it and conceptualizing the Bill of Rights. Together with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, they were the authors of the famous Federalist Papers, a number of treatises in support of the constitution (Nivola, 2005). James Madison Jnr. also served as the leader of the House of Representatives where he extensively oversaw the drafting, amendment and debating of key legislation. His views were quite fluid in regard to a strong Federal government versus strong state governments, shifting between the two sides before settling on a strong Federal government. During his tenure, he led the US into War and has been ranked among the ten most successful presidents of all times by preeminent historians (Tushnet, Graber & Levinson, 2015). He thus definitely has a lot to say about the government today and any shifts that are evident from the foundation he laid.
Me: Thank you for agreeing to this conversation Mr. President, there is definitely a lot to catch up on since your tenure as President in the early 19th century and your prior service in various capacities back in the late 1780s.
Madison: You’re welcome, it’s my joy. Certainly, there is so much to discuss about the present day United States. It would be interesting to see if things have tweaked a bit or the nation is still aligned to the path of the founders.
Me: Thanks again. Whether we are still aligned to the path will be a subject of your judgment, Mr. President. All appears good for now. Where do we start, you have quite an interest in everything…
Madison: (Interjecting). Quite true. But I think we can begin with the roles of government. Could you take me through the branches of government and their administrative functions as well as structural and political characteristics?
Me: Sure. Currently, there are three branches of the Federal government; the legislature, executive and the Judiciary. The legislative branch is responsible for making laws, approves or rejects presidential nominees and has the powers to declare war (Tushnet, Graber & Levinson, 2015). Structurally, it is made up of the Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) and many agencies that offer support services. Each state has two elected Senators, making it a total of 100, who can seek re-election as many times as they wish. There are 435 elected representatives who are shared amongst the 50 states depending on the population (Nivola, 2005). Among the group are also representatives for the District of Columbia and other states who lack voting rights. The Congress is quite powerful given that it can impeach federal officers including the president and the judges of the Supreme Court.
Madison: (Amused) Interesting… what about the executive and the judiciary?
Me: The executive arm comprises of the president, his cabinet and many other federal officers in charge of implementing laws. They include members of committees, independent agencies, boards and commissions. However, the key members of the executive branch are the President, the Vice-president and the cabinet. The president is the head of state and the commander in chief of the armed forces, serving a maximum of two 4-year terms (Tushnet, Graber & Levinson, 2015). The Vice-President on the other hand supports the president and can become president if the President is unable to serve under any of the situations stipulated in the constitution. He can serve for many four year terms under different presidents with no limit. Elsewhere, the Judiciary comprises of the Supreme Court and other federal courts and judges. Their role is to interpret the law (Tushnet, Graber & Levinson, 2015). The Supreme Court is the largest court in the land and the nine judges that sit therein are appointed by the president and approved by the senate. The judges have security of tenure and serve for life except where they retire voluntarily, die or are removed under exceptional circumstances. There is need for a quorum of six judges to preside over a case in the Supreme Court.
Madison: I presume all the branches are independent…
Me: Very true. The constitution provides for separation of powers albeit with checks and balances on each part. For instance, I have mentioned that the congress debates presidential appointments including the Supreme Court Judges and have powers to reject them. It also has powers to impeach executive officers including the president (Tushnet, Graber & Levinson, 2015). On the other hand, the president can veto laws passed by the senate while the courts can also overturn laws that are unconstitutional.
Madison: Thank you for that elaborate exposition. Now, you understand my obsession with state versus federal powers. During my time, there was a lot of moving back and forth with respect with which side should have more power and resources. When I led the US into war in 1812, I realized the importance of a strong Federal government as we barely had a financial base or a strong army (Tushnet, Graber & Levinson, 2015). Could you please state two exclusive federal powers and two exclusive state powers in the current dispensation?
Me: Federalism provides for both exclusive state and federal powers. The latter are only at the discretion of the federal government and states cannot legislate or decide anything related to them. These include printing of money and declaring war among others (Nivola, 2005). Exclusive state powers imply that states are free to make laws and decisions about such issues without any interference of the federal government. Such powers include providing public health and safety and issuance of licenses.
Madison: That’s quite fair, one can understand why the distinction exists even from our founding perspective. By giving the federal government powers over overarching macroeconomic policy such as printing of money and the declaration of war, there is a stronger federal government as I saw it at the time. I know federal-state relations will not be always rosy, what role do the courts play in this?
Me: The courts are very important in resolving conflicts between federal and state governments. Sometimes, the federal government enacts laws that are within exclusive state power, such as the Defense of Marriage Act (Nivola, 2005). In such cases, the courts must offer an interpretation and therefore arbitrate the conflict of powers. Similarly, the states may also overstep their mandate and make laws that relate to exclusive federal power. An example would be a state coming up with their local laws on Marijuana. This is a federally controlled substance given that interstate and international trade are under exclusive federal authority. In this case again, the courts must come in between and establish the merits of the conflict and subsequently resolve it.
Madison: Even then, I still see a problem in the present day with respect to distribution of state and federal powers. The US seems to be deviating from the 10th amendment, which reserves any powers not allocated to the federal republic and not prohibited for the states to the people or the individual states (Tushnet, Graber & Levinson, 2015). Our intention in accommodating this amendment was to avoid having an overly powerful federal state even though I thought its powers needed to be more than those of the 50 states. The clear intention was to create checks and balances and give the final say to the people. We now have the federal government hovering over state decisions in healthcare, education, environmental policy among other sectors. What recommendations would you offer as a contemporary of the current slate of federalism because clearly such are needed?
Me: I think first of all the states have to be given more autonomy. As you have rightly noted, there has been a lot of interference and deviation from the 10th amendment. It is time that the states are given more discretion as the places that have the power closest to the people. Additionally, the states should be allowed to compete amongst themselves. That way, we can enhance them as laboratories of our democracy rather than relying on the federal government in Washington. If we nurture the states and allow them to flourish democratically the federal republic shall grow strong in the end. I also think that debt management is currently out of place. The national debt should be examined closely and managed in order to create a strong federal republic not on debt but production and sustainability.
Madison: Thank you, this was very insightful.
Nivola, P. S. (2005). Why federalism matters. Brookings Institution.
Tushnet, M. V., Graber, M. A., & Levinson, S. (Eds.). (2015). The Oxford Handbook of the US Constitution. Oxford Handbooks.
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