The Fading Legislative Tradition

Delusional thinking is always present in totalitarian states. Hannah Arendt wrote that when democratic institutions collapse, it is “easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which have become pious banalities.”

As the world makes less and less sense to average Americans, many will gladly accept a world of easy-to-digest alt.truth which can serve as a shock absorber for the hard-to-accept grim reality of their lives.

Maintaining a grip on truth and objective reality becomes a form of resistance.

The growing sense of crisis in Washington forces everyone to relearn the basics. How many times have you heard or read some media “expert” talking about our system’s equal (or “co-equal”) branches of government? Nothing could be more wrong. The writers of the U.S. Constitution had no intention at all of creating three branches with equal power. In fact, the hottest debate at the 1787 convention was whether or not to have any executive at all, and whether it should be one man or a three-man commission. Deals were made, including a requirement of natural born citizenship, designed to prevent the brilliant and reviled Alexander Hamilton from ever being president.

They’d just fought a revolution against a tyrannical monarch and his thug colonial governors. The Constitution makes it clear that in day-to-day affairs there are reasonable checks and balances, but in any serious conflict the legislature is the dominant branch. In the end, they can override vetoes and impeach and remove any pesident or judge.

During World War I, an important budget bill drafted in the White House was sent by President Wilson to Congress for consideration, and not the other way around. That was the end of Congress’s superiority as intended by the framers.

The modern, imperial president was born from the need to quickly organize masses of people, capital and equipment for industrialized warfare.

Legislative superiority is an American tradition, fading from memory, once valued at every level of government.

It wasn’t until 1927 that New York adopted an “executive budget system” that created the modern, powerful governorship.

We think of them as “town supervisors,” but actually “supervisor” is a term of art that generally means county legislator. For over two centuries, Long Island supervisors had no formal town function. That started near the end of the 19th century. To this day, supervisors are true chief executives only to the extent allowed by local political organizations or tradition. They are mostly legislators-in-chief, without most basic executive powers that provide accountability and efficiency.

This story was kept out of the newspapers of the time but became kind of a local legend. In 1935, three different proposed charters for Nassau County government were floating around, pushed by competing commissions and the state legislature. The county’s “official” commission deadlocked on the issue of whether or not to have an elected or appointed chief administrator. They were hopelessly tied at seven-to-seven when they called in Hempstead Presiding Supervisor Russ Sprague to mediate, at that time consolidating his position as leader of the Nassau G.O.P. Though not a member of the commission, he cast the final vote, and that’s how the Nassau County executive position was born. Sprague was then elected to the position five times.

Legislative oversight and investigation makes the system work.

The president is just a symptom. The problem includes quite a few citizens carrying unhealthy loads of debt, stress, meth and ammunition. If he’s going to be impeached, it’s got to be for something real, tangible and clearly rising to the level of political death penalty. It’s got to be good, and it’s got to stick forever.

Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.

Michael A. Miller
Michael Miller ( has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.

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