Separation of powers, checks and balances

One of the early lessons taught to Americans under the heading of civics concerns the separation of powers and checks and balances.
It was an innovation when written into the Constitution close to the end of the 18th century, and continues to operate. Donald Trump's problems with Congress, despite his party's majority in both Houses, demonstrates an essential element. And some of his efforts have fallen prey to Federal Judges, whose power and tenure also have their roots in original language of the Constitution.
Separation of powers and checks on all holding power is no longer unique to the United States. Details differ, especially between presidential and parliamentary forms of government. However, the hallmark of all democracies is that no power holder is able to act on any major measure without the consent of individuals and institutions legally and politically independent of one another.
What has happened in all democracies, however, especially during the most recent 100 years, is that the separation of powers between political institutions has been altered, buffered, and to some extent taken over by another mode of separation. Professional bureaucracies have grown in size and power, and their capacity--both legal and political--to delay, alter, or overturn the decisions of political institutions staffed by individuals elected to their positions. Via a wide range of regulations, professional bureaucracies have also limited the freedom within what used to be described as the "private sector."
Professional cadres were not part of the American scene in the 18th century. Reading the Federalist Papers, we see that the wise (and highly educated for their time) founders relied on ideas taken from the ancient Mediterranean, Renaissance Europe, and 17th century Britain.
There was nothing like the systematic research evident in policy debates of recent years.
Among the landmarks in the professionalization of the United States were:
  • The development of agricultural research, beginning in the 19th century
  • Medical advances associated with the construction of the Panama Canal, the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration, and later the National Institutes of Health
  • Waves of civil service reform, beginning in the 1880s, that gradually replaced political favoritism with professional criteria in the appointment of government employees
  • The GI Bill of Rights that brought millions of World War II veterans from lower- and middle income families to higher education, and the further expansion with the coming to college age of their baby boomer children in the 1960s and onward
  • Administrations of FDR and a generation later LBJ that spurred the roles of economists, other social scientists, and attorneys in domestic policymaking and administration
  • World War II, then the Cold War, and 9-11 that provided major roles in foreign policy for military professionals
  • An increasing prominence of environmental concerns, with professionals contributing to policy and implementation.  
Other countries had their own parallel developments, resulting in similar transformations across the map of western democracies
Elected officials and tenured judges still reign in a formal sense, and--depending on their skills--may actually be the weightiest figures in key episodes of policymaking. But they cannot do it by themselves. Not only is policy not finalized until implemented by professionals in the bureaucracies, but the professionals on the staffs of elected officials and judges may be dominant  in drafting the language of policies accepted by politicians, as well as in persuading the politicians what is possible and proper.
Donald Trump is an extreme, but not a unique example of an elected official dependent on minders or care providers to draft his speeches and trying to keep him from acting as a moron in tweets and other extemporaneous expressions. Contrasts between his campaign promises, his utterances as President, and the documents that actually come from the Oval Office suggest the moderation and direction provided by aides more experienced in government. 
The highly vaunted titled of "Commander-in-Chief" remains the President's label from the Constitution, but it has been replaced by a legislated chain of command that puts the Secretary of Defense and professional military officers between the President and what he decides, then how it is put into effect. 
Decades ago, a prominent political scientist wrote that the presidential power of command had been replaced by the presidential power of persuasion.
Some argue that the pendulum has swung too far. There are movements in several countries to widen the powers of elected officials to appoint key bureaucrats. Their slogan is something like the power of the people has been limited by bureaucrats not accountable to the voters.  
Britain's effort to get out of the European Union while still enjoying the benefits of easy movement of individuals and trade represents the efforts of political activists to escape the power of a multi-national bureaucracy.
In Israel, Bibi and his supporters are seeking to lessen the weight of professionals who dominate the appointment of judges and individuals in the upper echelons of government departments. 
And the Prime Minister is trying to save himself by castigating professionals in the Israel Police, who are playing a key role in documenting the illegalities of himself and his wife. Bibi's personal campaign of accusing the police of unprofessional conduct has not gone well. His opponents are citing the police as one of the professional  institutions protecting Israel's democracy. 
Anti-Bibi voices are coming from activists in the professions of higher education, law, social services, and media. 
A mixture of professions and politics appears in a number of government ministers and Members of Knesset who came from professions, and employ their training and professional ties in winning elections and exercising their roles as legislators or executives.
There is also the profession of political advisers, i.e., individuals who do not run for office, but make their careers as advisers to candidates, or in the professional staffs associated with legislatures and politically elected executives.
There are more than 20,000 people working for the 535 elected Members of the US Congress, as staff members of committees, or as employees of the institutions directly responsible to Congress as opposed to the Executive Branch..
The historical process does not replace the Federalists' contributions to democracy, but does alter it in significant ways. 
The overriding question of Who Governs? is no longer answered as suggested by the civics textbooks of years past.
Democratic government remains dependent on a balance of different power holders, but somewhere close to the center are individual professionals appointed by committees of professionals, and professionals who have won their office by popular election.
Comments welcome
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem