A Government of Four Institutions: Major Strengths

This essay discusses the major strength of each of the four government institutions examined in the course: Congress, the presidency, the bureaucracy, and the Supreme Court. Without dismissing the obvious notion that each of these institutions has multiple functions, strengths and weaknesses – and each of which worthy of debate – I will here focus on one strength per institution. These strengths are those which in my opinion are the most significant in relation to the greater whole. These are Congress’ dependence on voters and independence of political parties in elections, the presidency’s decisiveness, the federal bureaucracy’s specialisation, and the Supreme Court’s judicial review.

Congress’ major strength is its members being independent. That is, they are not nominated by any political party, but instead they are nominated by and therefore dependent on voters in their respective states and districts. As a result, and because of reelection pressure, it is in their interest to represent their constituencies to the best of their abilities and to vote accordingly. Even though they might align themselves with a party and vote with the party on certain topics, they are in no way obliged to do so. The presidency’s major strength is its ability to be quick and decisive in making use of its executive powers. The president has singular authority over the executive branch, national appeal, and access to information to which Congress does not have access. Therefore, it is a useful antithesis to Congress, which takes more time to process bills and has limited access to intelligence. For example, national crises and international affairs might require secrecy, or they might only offer a small window of opportunity and limited time to act. The federal bureaucracy contributes to the overall system of checks and balances by offering concentrated, highly specialised knowledge pertaining to one specific area of interest. For example, the National Park Service regulates and maintains both the recreational and environmental value of America’s national parks. Even while subject to political and legal changes by Congress and the presidency, they also provide structure and consistency in the long term for issues and services deemed essential. In that, they are a valuable source of information for Congress as well. I believe the major strength of the United States Supreme Court is judicial review. It provides rigorous oversight over each of the other institutions with which it can determine whether these institutions have acted within the boundaries of their constitutional authority. Using judicial review, the Supreme Court can therefore preserve the spirit of the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. They maintain the big picture and consistency in the long term, while Congress and the presidency deal with the day to day. This is also aided by the justices lifelong appointments, in contrast with limited terms for both members of Congress and the president.

In conclusion, the four institutions each have their own strengths, and each help create a balanced system of governance – a “government of laws, not of men”, if you will – in which they are all necessary. Congress is closest to voters and represents the slow but rigorous advance of law, the presidency is the decisive director in those situations that require a swift resolution, the federal bureaucracy harbours specialised knowledge on those topics Congress deems of essential value, and the Supreme court makes sure all of that happens within the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.

* For EdX course “American Government”, courtesy of Harvard University.

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