The United States is sometimes referred to as an experiment in liberty; we were the first to try a Democratic Republic, so calling it an experiment–even after 229 years–is not inappropriate. The formula, if you will, for the experiment is the US Constitution–an imperfect document written by imperfect men–but a masterpiece nevertheless. Thirty-three amendments to the Constitution have been proposed, of which 27 have been ratified by the states and become law.
The Constitution created three branches of government: the legislature, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives, to write law; the judiciary, which interprets law to ensure that it is not in conflict with the Constitution; and the executive branch to carry out the laws.
At some point, it seems that the legislature abdicated much of its authority and many of its responsibilities. Their focus was on getting re-elected, rather than looking out for the country as a whole, at least for anything that might be politically unpopular. The change happened so gradually that no specific time can be discerned as to when it happened. Some say during the Kennedy Administration, others point to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” while others say it’s always been that way.
The Judiciary picked up some of the slack, using judgments to fill in the blanks where written law was insufficient or inadequate. Much of the credit for whatever progress we’ve made in civil rights, especially for African-Americans, belongs to law created by judicial rulings.
In the meantime, the Executive Branch also got into the fray–with a vengeance. Many agencies under the Executive Branch were able to write their own rules, have internal administrative law judges to interpret them, and act as law-giver, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner.
Then, of course, there are the Executive Orders that look like law, walk like law, and quack like law. Executive orders are much more effective than the bully pulpit.
So, today, we have a Congress that is essentially a theatrical production. Members spend most of their time promoting their own particular interests; this is why, if you watch C-SPAN, you’ll see members of Congress making impassioned speeches to a virtually empty room. The judiciary, for good or for ill, tries to make sense of the law that does exist, and the Executive branch charges off in whichever direction the current president pleases.