Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched parties yesterday. He will face no problems in the future as an independent because of two major concepts:1) Jeffords is not a marginal candidate and 2) stratified government prevents the Republican Party from pursuing any significant revenge for his action.

As a US Senator since 1988, Jeffords has consistently won over 55% of the Vermont electorate. Anything below 55% is considered a marginal victory. A close win means that a politician must seek out and depend on outside sources of funding and mobilization. Often, these “outside sources” mean support from the national party and out-of-state donors. Marginal candidates cannot afford to stop campaigning even after taking office.

In his last election, Senator Jeffords received over 65% of the vote in Vermont. Bush, by contrast, received a dismal 36% for the presidential ballot. These two numbers display the significance of Jeffords’ security as a member of the US Senate. The voters of Vermont like Jeffords for his agenda or personality or something other than partisanship. If political labels meant anything to the voters of that state, Bush would have received a larger share and Jeffords would remain an unknown yesman beholden to his national party and significant external interests.

The reality of US politics is that the legislature has 535 political parties. It’s easy to say that politicians are party members when their election cycle is up. It’s easy to say that politicians are bought and sold by powerful interests.

Writing this off as “individualism”—and particularly “cronyism”–is to ignore the fundamental institutional processes at work within the US Constitution. Checks and balances go far beyond the obvious grade-school understanding of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Checks and balances in the US go to the very core of government operation. The system breeds “individualism” when it works. The system breeds “cronyism” when it fails.

The switch of James Jeffords from Republican to Independent is a sign that the Constitution still has a pulse. When time shows that Jeffords’ action will not affect his career in the Senate, that will be evidence that the Constitution is alive and well.

Jeffords could act upon his conscience, free will, opinion of party leadership and any other factor because, as dictated by the Constitution, his only concern as a US Senator is the people of Vermont. All other issues are extraneous. He, and every other member of that chamber, does not need to concern himself with the issues of other states. Likewise, Jeffords does not need to concern himself with the issues of the counties and municipalities of Vermont.

The job of broad national concerns belongs to the President. The job of localized concerns belong to the members of Vermont’s US House delegation.

Each part of government will not simply check the power of one another in a static sense like following instructions to bake a cake. The Constitution is more dynamic than “bill starts in House, passes Congress, signed by President, upheld by Supreme Court.”

Each branch has an election cycle that moves at different speeds and is accountable to different groups of the governed—and only those groups. Even inside of each branch, the cycles of power go at different speeds with the goal of preventing power from concentrating into a few hands.

Focusing just on one chamber, most people know that the US Senate term is 6 years. The lesser known fact is that one-third of the Senate is up for election every two years. This forces the constant injection of new ideas and new people into a very lengthy term of the Senate. Conceivably, one Senate term could result in 100% turnover within the chamber. Because the Senate has less people (100), it is a more moderate body and does not require political upheaval to keep it in the ideological center. Senators possess an enormous amount of power because they often have their own political machines to get them in office and keep them there. A Senator who “owes” outside sources, won’t stay Senator for long. Getting anything done requires true compromise and respect.

What seems like chaos is quite orderly and well thought out. Money, of course, changes everything and forces “unnatural” political behavior that creates the cynicism that most people feel towards all levels of government. Fortunately, the system created in 1789 still manages to slap power-hungry characters back into line at the national level.

Party “leaders” like Republican Trent Lott need to watch their step or they risk a serious loss of power as the case of Senator Jeffords shows. Jeffords didn’t need the Republican Party to stay in office. He certainly didn’t need Bush. He found his own way to the Senate and the system allowed him to keep his individualism so long as he didn’t sell himself to other sources. Clearly, Senator Jeffords wears the term “Independent” better than anybody in the US Government.

Chris Uzal is a Political Science graduate of the University of Florida. He is the Network Projects Manager for a company in Boynton Beach, FL.

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