Every country in the modern world has a constitution of its own, whatever it may contain. In a democracy the constitution provides for the three branches of government – executive, legislature and judiciary. The rights and responsibilities of each of the branches are well defined in the constitution and the constitution of the United States of America is not an exception to it. The intention is to ensure that the government governs the country properly. Whatever happens, the show must go on. For that purpose funds are provided by the legislature – they call it Congress consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate – by passing budget every year. The peculiar system of America allows Congress to provide funds on selective basis, that is, for different periods for different departments. Thus, the funds provided for about nine departments expired by the midnight of 23 December, 2018. Those departments cannot function unless funds are provided by the legislature for extended period. For them the financial period ends by September every year. Accordingly, the House of Representatives passed a stop gap arrangement to ensure funds for those departments and the bill was sent to the Senate. At that time the President announced that he would not sign the bill, even if it is passed by the Senate, as there are no funds provided for building the wall on the Mexican border.It is a bone of contention between the Democrats and Republicans, the two main parties ruling the country. The wall happens to be one of the main offers made by the President at the time of election and he is particular that it must be built at any cost. Everybody has a right to have his own opinion regarding the need or legitimacy of the wall. But the question now is that the government is paralysed and closed partially for want of funds. Is it justified to prevent the flow of funds to certain departments of government unless funds are provided for a project envisaged by the President?
The President of America is an office sui generis. The entire administration depends on the whims and fancies of the person occupying the position. It is the most powerful office in the modern world having control of the most powerful military and economic strength. Such concentration of power in the hands of one person is inconsistent with principles of democracy. But it is justified in the USA as the person is elected directly by the people of the entire country. The Representatives and Senators are also elected but only by a fraction of the people. Even then, the President is bound by certain restrictions mentioned in the constitution. No bill passed by the Congress becomes law unless it is signed by the President. But his discretion in this regard is limited. Section 7 of Article I clearly states that the bill passed by the Congress shall be submitted to the President for his approval. The President shall sign it or he may send it back to the House where it originated with his objections within ten days after he receives the bill.Then if the two Houses pass the bill again with two thirds majority, the bill becomes law as if it is signed by the President. Even if he keeps quiet for more than ten days after receiving the bill, it is deemed to have been approved and becomes law.
The present situation is more piquant. The bill providing funds for the departments is passed by the House of Representatives and held up in the Senate. It is not passed in the Senate to be submitted to the President for his signature. So the President cannot be held directly responsible for the present stalemate. He only said that he will not approve the bill as it does not contain provision of $5 billion required to build the wall on Mexican border. But the Republican members of Senate do not like to put the President in embarrassment by presenting the bill to him which he would not approve and earn the blame for it. They are trying to get a compromise by providing some funds for the wall. But the objection of Democrats is on principle that the wall is an aberration and unconstitutional. To provide for token amounts to satisfy the President makes no meaning as it amounts approval of the wall. In fact when the House of Representatives passed the bill in December there was a majority of Republicans in the House. Even then the Republican members in the Senate did not pass the bill to be presented to the President.
In January, 2019 Democrats got majority in the House of Representatives and reiterated the passing of the bill without any funds for the wall. Republicans are in majority in the Senate and they are trying again for a compromise to satisfy the President. He asserted that he would never approve funds for the rest of the departments unless funds are provided in the bill for the wall as he demanded. The Senate could have passed the bill and submitted it to the President for him to return the same with objections. That is the process envisaged under the constitution. By not presenting the bill to the President, the Senate obstructed the constitutional process. But can the President find fault with a bill just because it does not contain some item of his choice? Does it amount to a legitimate objection for reconsideration of the bill by the House? Any objection that the President could raise must be in relation to what is contained in the bill but not on what is not included in the bill. For any item there could be a separate bill if the Congress or President wants. The President can always suggest that funds shall be provided for any purpose envisaged by him in the form of a separate bill. But to refuse consent for a bill as it does not contain provision suggested by him appears childish to say the least. It is like the son refusing to go to school unless he is given a Buick car.
It is true a long time back they have declared “The business of America is business.” Now they are treating the government as a business organization and the country a business asset. Any business organization closes a loss making line of business. They have done the same with the government. About a quarter of the government is closed.
About nine cabinet level departments remain closed from 23 December, 2018 and about a million employees are going without salaries on which they depend exclusively. Now the President threatens that he is prepared to let the closure continue indefinitely and also to declare emergency so that the Congress is suspended and he could do whatever he wants. But it is doubtful whether he has such powers under the constitution. Such powers are subject to approval or consent of the Senate.The very fact that the situation is allowed to come to this stage shows something lacking in the system of democracy prevailing in the United States of America. After all, it is the primary duty of government to see that all the functions of government are being carried out regularly for the benefit of the people. The government or any branch of it does not have a right to hold the country to ransom, particularly the President who is directly elected by the people.
In all this chaos, murmurs are heard that the President can be impeached. But it is highly impossible to materialise. There may be so many instances where the President said and did things that look incongruous and inconsequent. But they could not form basis for impeachment as they do not constitute “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The present situation appears to have precipitated more because of partisan politics rather than because of the intransigent President. There has been a shutdown of government 13 times since 1981. But no effort appears to have been made to prevent recurrence of such a situation. It only shows a callous attitude on the part of political agencies. Closing the functions of government does not constitute democracy. Even a dictator does not resort to it.Dictators run the government as they like but never close it. Closure of government means some of the services to the people are not made available. That is failure of the system, whether you call it democracy or autocracy. It exposes some radical defect in the system. It is strange that nobody tries to address the same.