Message to my Mom IV

It has been a while but I thought I’d bring up an excerpt from this email to my Mom from last Fall. It fits with my mention of the accretion of power by the Unitary Executive.

I was writing my mother about the Citizens United case, the corruption of our government by corporate money and gave her a thumbnail view of Roman history – particularly the fall of the Republic. I may have some details worng – I was working from memory on much of it – put it is correct in its focus – the corruption of power in Rome by money made it easy for the legislative side to give more power to a Unitary Executive.

Here is the relevant part (with some small editing):

What I would like is a constitutional amendment to create a Plural Executive, along the lines of what Texas has. The Executive branch has aggregated way too much power over the last 30 years.

You know, the Roman Republic used a plural executive, electing two consuls every year to run the government.

This worked well until the First Triumvirate came into existence which eventually resulted in the end of the Roman Republic. The First Triumvirate was made of 3 men – Pompey and Julius Caesar, the greatest military minds of the time and Crassus, the richest man who ever existed in Roman History if not all history. (He made much of his fortune because he ran the only fire brigade in Rome. When a home would catch on fire, he would negotiate a fee to put it out. If it ended up burning to the ground, he bought it for cheap.) His wealth has been estimated at $2 trillion – the richest man in the world today has about $50 billion. His wealth was equal to the entire Roman treasury at the time. Think about someone whose wealth was equal to the entire US budget.

There was tremendous turmoil during that time, with slave revolts and populist revolts. There was an attempt by the farmers to kill Senators, which resulted in a lot of clamping down on rights. This is when Spartacus ran amok throughout the peninsula, scaring the Romans probably every bit as much as we were scared by 9/11, maybe more because the guys who wanted to slit every Roman throats were actually a large army in the heart of the country. IN addition to his wealth, Crassus gained a lot of political power by defeating Spartacus – using decimation of his own troops for motivation and crucifixion of the slaves as example. Other generals had failed so Crassus was viewed as the one who saved Rome)

So, the richest guy in the world got together with two of the greatest generals ever (who also happened to be quite wealthy)  and formed a secret group – the First Triumvirate –  to control the government in 59 BC. They decided who would be consul (the executive branch  of the Republic, who got the plumb jobs, etc. And made it happen. Using money and influence, they corrupted members of the Senate, who went about removing rivals of the Triumvirate, often by violent means (two of the greatest speakers in Roman history, Cicero and Cato, were politically destroyed at this time because of their opposition), while the trio enjoyed aggregating more money and power as consuls, often together.

Crassus died in 53 BC and within 4 years, Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, Pompey was killed and Caesar was in complete control being declared dictator for life and effectively ending the independence of the Roman Senate. The Roman Republic would effectively end 5 years later in 44 BC with Caesar’s assassination.

A weak and corrupt Legislative branch allowed money to corrupt it, resulting in the emergence of strongmen with money to destroy the Republic. The huge fortune of one man was able to do this (although the huge wealth of the other two can not be discounted).

Not a happy story but one I think about a lot these days.  From the time when Spartacus scared the Romans spitless to the consolidation of power by the wealthy trio was about 10 years. The end of the Republic was about 15 years after that. Twenty five years from the catalyzing incident that drove the Romans to look to strong Executive powers for protection to the end of the Senate and a Unitary Executive with complete legislative powers – an emperor. The end happened very quickly after the corruption of government began.

Our Founding Fathers knew this and  did everything they could to limit the power of the Executive branch. But they did not come up with a good way to prohibit the corrupting influence of large amounts of money, especially on Congress.

Until we figure out a way to deal with that, we will never by truly functional, no  matter who is in charge. And we will be in terrible danger of completely losing our Republic.

At one time, I had hoped Obama might be able to repair some of this damage. In fact, I think he really tried to allow Congress to do its job of legislating and just focus on carrying out the will of Congress. But things are so broken that we can not actually function without a strong Executive spending most of his time telling Congress what to do.

We have to fix things but the efforts that are taking place are, to my mind, actually more conducive to strengthening the Executive rather than weakening. Nothing is being  done to reform Congress and especially the corrupting influence of unlimited amounts of money from corporations. It may well be that history records the Citizen United decision as one the most corrupt decisions of a corrupt age.

Image: Ann Wuyts