The separation of powers is working

Ignorance may be bliss but it’s rarely helpful. This complicated era of ours is an especially bad time for Americans to think of civics as just a Japanese import.

More than ever, amid our bitter divisions, we need to understand how our government is supposed to function. Those who designed our republican system did so in a way to harness the jealousies and rivalries that are inevitable among human beings so that they might benefit the common good. Or as James Madison put it in Federalist No. 51:

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Consider the unexpected twist in our state government this past week, when Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed nine items in the fiscal 2024 budget and ordered agencies to “disregard” another 134 legislative instructions about state spending. In all, Kemp altered about $255 million out of the $32.4 billion budget, along with a number of items without cost estimates.

You may be thinking: That’s less than 1% of state spending. What’s the big deal?

Well, there’s the sheer number of budget items affected. There’s also historical context: I counted just 58 “disregard” statements or line-item vetoes, total, during Kemp’s first term. They affected less than $90 million, plus a single item of $307.4 million related to federal pandemic relief.

The reaction from the legislative branch was acerbic, at least privately. Politically, lawmakers feel deprived of a host of accomplishments they planned to brag about back home. But as much as anything, this is a fight about checks and balances, and the separation of powers.

How old-fashioned! How “Schoolhouse Rock”!

How refreshing.

I take neither side in this argument; I think each has its merits. But given the attention the budget changes have gotten among Gold Dome denizens, it’s worth examining the implications.

We have become so accustomed in these hyper-partisan times to thinking of political rivalries in terms of Democrats and Republicans that, as I heard someone say this week, “half of the legislature thinks they work for the governor.” Similarly, Georgia has seen relatively few gubernatorial vetoes of bills on mere policy grounds, as opposed to constitutional concerns.

That’s because usually any differences among the three power centers of lawmaking – the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Office – are worked out before final passage of a bill. Not always, but the exceptions to that rule have been fairly rare.

What’s changed is the prevalence of detailed spending instructions added by legislators. Those connected with the General Assembly lament how many of their spending instructions were cut; those connected with the Governor’s Office were shocked that legislators included so many spending instructions in the first place.

Each branch thinks it’s merely exercising its rightful powers. The legislature, after all, is the body authorized to appropriate state funding. The executive branch, meanwhile, is the body authorized to decide how to carry out the law.

Each branch has a point.

For now, the executive branch maintains it is just protecting its constitutional prerogatives. Some agencies may end up spending some money as legislators had intended – but that’ll be an executive, not legislative, decision.

Will the legislative branch defend its authority by calling a rare (in Georgia, anyway) “veto override” session? It’s unclear that the “disregard” statements can be overridden. If the General Assembly tries to do so, might the third branch – the judiciary – have to settle this debate?

One reason Georgia has seen such relative harmony among the branches is that we’ve historically been a one-party state. Democratic control of the legislature and Governor’s Office yielded almost directly to GOP control.

But many political observers believe these “trifectas” won’t last. If a Democrat were to win the 2026 election for governor without managing to flip the General Assembly, these constitutional questions could become much more pointed.

How, in that scenario, might ambition counteract ambition?

It may not be pretty, but fortunately our system was designed to withstand such challenges. Until then, we can also expect it to hold up against these intra-party squabbles.

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