There have been many arguments made against the new-fangled “President Is King” arguments being pushed by our dimwitted President and his cronies: some are political, some legal, some historical, and some just plain common sense.
The most important and compelling of these arguments are, of course, from Constitutional Law: the Constitution is pretty goddamn clear on the idea of Separation of Powers–Abu Gonzales’ pathetic arguments based on Article II of the Constitution notwithstanding.
Some might say (to use a painful Fox News idiom), however, that the framers intended each of the Three Branches of the U.S. government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial) to be equal partners–and that each branch will carry the most weight under times that require it most. Under this particular theory, the Executive would carry the greatest importance in wartime; the Legislative would carry the greatest importance in peacetime, and the Judiciary would carry the greatest importance in the gray areas where the law and the right courses of action are not entirely clear.
Under this argument, the “fact” that we are at “war” (insofar as one can be at war with an abstract noun) means that the Executive Branch carries a little more leeway to overstep its bounds at this particular juncture in history.
And, of course, you would be right to call these wingnut apologetic arguments the total bullshit they are. You might point to the Constitution itself which empowers Congress and Congress alone to declare war, or to the War Powers Act of 1973, in demonstrating that the Executive does not, in have, have precedence over Congress in matters of War and Peace.
You might even argue that under no circumstance should any branch of government have implicit authority over any other, except for the regulations exactly as they are written in the Constitution.
And you would be wrong. There IS, in fact, a powerful argument to be made that one branch of government DOES take precedence over the others. It just isn’t the executive–it’s the LEGISLATIVE.
This argument rests on the layout and regulations of the City of Washington, D.C. itself. The CITY ITSELF demands, in fact, that one branch take priority over the others. It screams it with the silent but powerful voice of its very design and planning.
And lest you think this is a trivial argument, let me assure you that it is not. Any sociologist, linguistic anthropologist or cognitive specialist worth his or her salt knows that the use of space is a critically important component of human life. The way we organize space has a profound social and psychological impact–and those who design space for a living, such as urban planners, know this intrinsically. It gets a little in-depth here, but please bear with me.
It was anthropologist Edward T. Hall who introduced the term Proxemics to place a spotlight on the uses of space in interpersonal relations. One example of proxemics is the study of differences in space between people talking to one another across various cultures; for instance, cultures from more temperate zones tend to stand closer to one another when speaking than those in more colder climates.
Yet another example–and one which has more bearing on my point–involves the study of why rooms and public spaces are organized the way they are. Classrooms for instance, are only organized in a few specific different ways, which encourage focus on a single object: the teacher. No matter how a classroom is organized, there are rows of seats, which spaces in between the rows, and columns of empty space to walk down. The focus of every seat bears down on a single focal point: the space reserved for the teacher, which is almost universally marked in a special way with a desk, podium or elevated stage.
The proxemics of prisons is another interesting example of this. While Hall himself was more concerned with overcrowding in prisons and its psychological effects on inmates, the study of proxemics gives us insight into how the very design of most prisons encourages the focus of attention on the prisoners themselves. This is especially true of the Panopticon which is designed, according to Wikipedia:
to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not, thus conveying a “sentiment of an invisible omniscience”
In other words, the very design of the prison itself creates a psychological urge towards the breaking of the will of prisoners through constant VISUAL FOCUS on the prisoners–real or imagined.
And while the study of Proxemics mostly concerns itself with smaller spaces and interpersonal relations, it also applies greatly to the organization of large spaces and urban planning. The visionary and influential architect and urban planner Christopher Alexander understood this very well, and attempted through his theoretical work to solve many of the social problems of his day through design that, among other things, refocused attention on community building, rather than isolation.
When all is said and done then, the most important aspect of proxemics when applied to architecture and urban planning is FOCUS. Whatever object the designer chooses to focus on implicitly–a teacher, a set of prisoners, etc.–is the object will psychologically command the most attention, thereby creating implicit IMBALANCES OF POWER.
And here is the heart of the matter: the proxemics of the design of Washington D.C. itself demand a singular focus on the LEGISLATIVE. From the earliest days of its very design, Congress–not the executive–was intended to be the ultimate seat of power in Washington and, by extension, in America. This was accomplished by housing Congress in the Capitol building–and by making the Capitol the most important building in D.C.
1) The Capitol building is the focus of the four quadrants of the city. In other words, each of the city’s four quadrants meet at their inside corners. As Wikipedia notes:
At the center of the design, is the United States Capitol Building, from which four quadrants radiate along the four compass directions: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast.
What this means is that the CENTRAL FOCUS OF THE CITY IS THE CAPITOL–and, by extension, Congress. You can see a picture of this below:
By comparison, the White House is far off-center, tucked away firmly in the NW quadrant. And this is by design.
2) It must be remembered that George Washington himself laid the cornerstones for both buildings. He helped select the sites and was there for the groundbreaking ceremonies–and he selected the White House site AFTER selecting the Congressional site. That means that George Washington, first in the hearts of his countrymen, INTENDED that the focus of power be on Congress, and NOT on himself in the Executive.
In both of these cases, we see that the Legislative was given precedence over the Executive from the very beginning. It was DESIGNED that way.
3) The Supreme Court was housed directly within the Capitol for 135 years. As SupremeCourtHistory.org tells us:
When the seat of the federal government was transferred permanently to Washington, D.C., in 1800, no provision was made for housing for the Supreme Court. Less than two weeks before the Court was to convene, Congress resolved to let the Court use a room in the Capitol. The Court moved into the Old North Wing (image above), meeting in various rooms from February 1810 to December 1860. During the early years when construction displaced the Justices, they had to meet in nearby homes or taverns. Eventually the Court occupied a courtroom that had been especially designed for it in the basement beneath the new Senate chamber. When the Court moved upstairs in 1861, the old courtroom became the law library for both Congress and the Court, seen here in this c. 1895 photograph. The Supreme Court was housed in what is now called the restored Old Senate Chamber from 1861 to 1935. Although the chamber was more spacious and dignified than the basement one, there was no dining room (the Justices lunched in the robing room), and no individual office space for the Justices and their staff (the Justices often worked at home).
And only in 1935 did the Supreme Court get its own building.
There is no better way to show the subservience of one institution to another than by housing its offices in the same building–and so it was with the Supreme Court. Conservatives make this claim with some regularity–and it is true. The Judicial branch was meant to be a check and balance on the laws promulgated by the Legislative and the actions taken by the Executive, but there is no question that its importance was considered minimal when compared to the Legislative branch.
And the simple issue of design tells us that above all: The Legislative Branch was considered superior to the Judicial Branch from the very beginning. It was DESIGNED that way.
4) No building in Washington D.C. may be taller than the Capitol. Though I cannot find a link to the actual text of the law, references to it may be found all over the place through Google. It’s one of those supposedly useless bits of trivia that Jeopardy contestants memorize.
Standing at 287.5 feet, the Freedom statue at the top of the Capitol stands exactly six inches taller than the top of the Washington Monument, since the Capitol is situated on the top of Capitol Hill.
The fact that no building in the entire District can be built above this height accounts of much of the city’s openness, and the lack of skyscrapers which give the city a European feel. What this means is that the Seat of Government, invested in the Legislative Branch of the United States, takes precedence over all other concerns–including business.
Thus it is that the city planners themselves dictated, and continue to dictate to this day, that not only does the Legislative Branch trump the Executive and Judicial, it ALSO TRUMPS BUSINESS AS WELL.
In fact, what you actually have–in the way the city was designed–is a chart that looks as follows:
LEGISLATIVE > EXECUTIVE > JUDICIAL
LEGISLATIVE > BUSINESS INTERESTS
And there you have it. It’s a question of design! And any “strict constructionist” interested in the “framers’ intent” would be a hypocrite (but aren’t they all) no look at these issues as well when making their decisions–especially about matters and weighty and important as the “unitary executive.”
I’m not holding my breath, though.