One of the keys to making our government work properly is the balance of powers. It’s a common mistake to think the president runs the federal government, but he doesn’t. He runs the executive branch.
His official influence over the legislative and judicial branches is limited to proposing the budget and other legislation and nominating federal judges and Supreme Court justices.
But the executive branch can’t do anything unless Congress appropriates money for programs. The judiciary has the authority to block Congress’ actions if it deems them unconstitutional, and it has the authority to block the executive branch’s actions if it finds they flout the law.
But like the executive, the judiciary has no money; its funding comes from Congress.
Similarly, the courts have no enforcement authority; it relies on the police powers of the executive branch to make sure its decisions are implemented.
These complementary powers gave us last year’s budget battles over funding the Iraq war.
Congressional opponents of the war attempted to force President Bush to pull out the troops by cutting off their funding. Likewise, the symbiotic powers were on display when President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
For the most part the system works pretty well. Each branch occasionally oversteps its role and usurps authority from another branch, but the others generally are quick to react to preserve their power.
The country saw the opening salvos in another turf war this month when a federal court ordered the Navy to comply with environmental laws that restrict its use of certain sonar equipment within 12 miles of the California coastline.
The Navy says it needs to use the sonar in exercises off the coast to properly train for detecting enemy submarines; opponents say the sonar can harm whales and other sea life.
The Navy exercises take place in waters where the topography is similar to the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran. Prior to the judge’s ruling, the Navy had claimed that limiting the use of the sonar would render the exercises useless for training.
Federal Judge Marie Florence-Marie Cooper, no doubt drawing on her years of military experience, disagreed and ruled accordingly.
Last week, President Bush upped the ante in the legal battle by exempting the Navy from the environmental laws at issue in the case. In a court filing, the administration said the court’s decision “profoundly interferes with the Navy’s global management of U.S. strategic forces, its ability to conduct warfare operations, and ultimately places the lives of American sailors and Marines at risk,” according to a Washington Post report.
We agree with the president’s assessment of the situation. National defense is one of the legitimate concerns of the federal government; protecting whales from sonar is not.
It’s imperative that our military be able to train in situations similar to what they’re likely to encounter in war zones.
It’s a common saying in military circles that the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war, meaning that training and preparation are essential to military success.
The president’s concerns are understandable, but it’s troubling that a president can set aside the decision of a federal court simply because he disagrees with it.
And this particular president has a troubling history of such actions.
Many of the bills he’s signed into law have “signing statements” attached to them, exempting the government from some portions of the bills that don’t follow the administration’s agenda.
Bush’s supporters often defend his actions by pointing to the war against terrorism and insist the president has wide latitude to defend the nation. That’s true to a point, but those powers are not unlimited.
The president must work within the confines of the Constitution. Supporters who insist otherwise must ask themselves if they would give a President Hillary Clinton or a President Barack Obama the same authority. For our part, we’re not comfortable with any president acting unilaterally and assuming extra-constitutional powers. That flies in the face of the limited government the Founding Fathers envisioned.