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US: Any Real Checks and Balances Left?

Republicans have severely damaged many once-respected institutions, even before President-elect Trump came onto the scene.

November 11, 2016

Credit: Ganesh Kumar -

The United States has elected presidents whose policy priorities are at odds with their supporters plenty of times over the last 30-40 years. What is so different this time? Why does the Trump Administration hold so much more menace and potential to make voters more angry, not less?

Most pundits say it is because Trump is more extreme. But the whole point of the checks and balances of a constitutional republic is to blunt the impact of a President’s extremism.

What makes the political risks so dangerous this time is that the environment has fundamentally changed — and those checks and balances have been undermined.

Checks and balances depend on institutions. The new problem facing the U.S. is that the Republican Party has serially undermined the credibility of U.S. institutions — often for minor political gains — and drastically weakened the normal checks on the Executive.

The state of those institutions has changed dramatically even since 2000. Recent political stunts had undermined just two major social institutions in 2000:

  1. The impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998-99 for lying about an affair undermined the credibility of the House as leader after leader fell to evidence of affairs outside their own marriages, in one case with a lobbyist.
  2. The 2000 Bush v Gore decision to overrule the Constitutional provision that states choose their electors in such manner as their legislatures direct shredded the credibility of the Supreme Court because only justices appointed by Republicans supported in its entirety the opinion, which put Republican George W. Bush in office.

But since 2000 one can add five more examples to the list:

  1. Going to war in 2003 over false claims about nuclear weapons in Iraq shredded the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community and foreign policy establishment.
  2. The 2008 financial crash shredded the credibility of U.S. financial regulatory institutions, leading to a zero-trust economy in which corporations refuse to invest their mountains of cash.
  3. The 2011 and 2013 debt-ceiling crises ruined the country’s international financial credibility and resulted in credit downgrades.
  4. The refusal of Senator Mitch McConnell and his leadership group to follow Constitutional norms this year in voting on a sitting president’s nominee to replace the late Justice Scalia shredded the credibility of the Senate.
  5. Director Comey’s intervention at the last minute of this year’s presidential election with the revelation of a new batch of Clinton emails that turned out to be irrelevant to his prior investigation shredded the credibility of the FBI and federal law-enforcement system in general.

A Trump election shouldn’t matter so much. It does now because the party that gave rise to him has undermined the institutional infrastructure that would otherwise keep a rogue government in check — or one that made promises only a police state can deliver.


Republican political stunts since the 1990s have eroded most checks and balances on Trump.

The party that gave rise to Trump has undermined the institutional infrastructure.