Congressional Gridlock's Threat to Separation of Powers

65 Pages Posted: 20 Jul 2013 Last revised: 12 Jul 2017

See all articles by Michael Teter

Michael Teter

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

Date Written: February 19, 2013


The principle of separation of powers serves as the foundation of our constitutional system. Though the doctrine’s meaning is somewhat amorphous, at its core rests a simple assumption: each branch must be able to fulfill its functional duties, while also serving to check the other branches. A gridlocked Congress undermines these basic expectations. The result is a legislature that relies on ad hoc committees, triggers, and gimmicks to make law; an executive that fills in the policy vacuum through presidential initiatives and who expands executive power without rebuke; and a judiciary exercising increasing authority over the meaning of statutes. In other words, our separation of powers scheme suffers because Congress cannot fulfill its constitutional role. To appreciate how gridlock threatens separation of powers requires a more complete awareness of the doctrine’s theoretical, historical, jurisprudential, and scholarly roots. From this review, I establish the broad contours of the separation of powers problem that gridlock poses. I then complete the analysis by turning to several real world examples to demonstrate how congressional stalemate actually undermines the separation of powers. In the end, I conclude that congressional gridlock poses such a threat to separation of powers that it places in peril the entire structural premises of American government.

Keywords: separation of powers, constitutional law, Congress, legislation

Suggested Citation

Teter, Michael, Congressional Gridlock's Threat to Separation of Powers (February 19, 2013). 2013 Wisconsin Law Review 1097, University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 55, Available at SSRN:

Michael Teter (Contact Author)

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

332 S. 1400 East, Room 101
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States

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