Enough already with these persistent — but mistaken — references to three co-equal branches of government
It’s been a while since I’ve addressed this issue, but I’ve recently heard and read several references to the federal government’s “three co-equal branches,” which prompts me to reiterate a point I’ve made here on several previous occasions:
Yes, the notion that the Constitution created three co-equal branches of government is an article of faith among most Americans. It’s popularly viewed as the provision that gives us our system of checks and balances. But it’s not true. In reality, there’s no mention of “co-equal branches” or “checks and balances” in the Constitution.
Most of the politicians who have played the “co-equal” card in recent decades have intended to argue against any presumption that the presidency is pre-eminent. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both played it during their presidential campaigns of five years ago, and congressional Republicans are doing the same these days.
But the fact is that the Founding Fathers did not create a system of co-equal branches of government. Rather, they intended for the legislative branch to be dominant, as is evidenced in the Federalist Papers and even in some of the arguments against ratification of the Constitution from people who said they wanted co-equal branches and complained that the proposed national charter seemed not to be provide for them.
Historian Garry Wills presents a convincing case against the “co-equal” theory — and against various other popular myths about the Constitution — in his 1999 book “A Necessary Evil.”
For example, Wills writes this: “The Congress can remove officers from the other two branches — president, agency heads, judges in district or supreme courts. Neither of the other two branches can touch a member of the Congress.”
Mind you, I recognize that this debunking of the “co-equal” myth can give aid and comfort to kooky pseudo-historians like the evangelist David Barton, whose book on Thomas Jefferson was so laughably inaccurate that its publisher yanked it from store shelves last year (see HERE).
But even Barton sometimes stumbles onto certain truths, and he, too, rightly recognizes that there are not three co-equal branches of the federal government.
FOOTNOTE: Another problem in all of this is that the word “co-equal” is redundant — just as “co-conspirator” is.