Everywhere you look Congress is collapsing. Seriously, what is the point?
The legislature has allowed for decades of executive growth. The worst part is, this is just the start.
As soon as Donald Trump moved into the White House commentators were put into an existential panic about the role of the executive branch in government. Some even suggest that another four years of President Trump could permanently re-shape the very fabric of American society; re-defining two and a half centuries of Constitutional and political practice in just eight short years. I argue, however, that the rotting began a long time ago.
As the Executive’s power has grown, the legislature’s has shrunk. Whatever side you are on, whatever party you support, something that we can all agree on is that the legislative authority no longer ‘necessarily predominates’, as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51. Madison was not alone in his preference for legislative deference.
Thomas Jefferson feared that a central government would become so powerful that the executive would be the sole engine of government. Benjamin Franklin thought similar, so instead suggested multiple chief executives — perhaps as many as three (imagine that). With Franklin and Madison, George Mason attempted to incorporate some form of executive council into the new Republic.
Presidents dunking on the legislature is not a new thing. In recent times Clinton, Bush, and Obama signed executive orders and made recess appointments in their hundreds, swatting away Congressional oversight. Before them, both Roosevelts, Wilson, Nixon, and Reagan sought to increase the power of the executive under their tenure as well.
In most cases, however, these were Constitutionally mandated exercises (although there are several exceptions). It is the sheer disrespect the current President shows to the branch that is unprecedented, and could do the most harm. I’m not just talking about him overlooking quaint little conventions that are cute, but arcane and fairly redundant anyway. I am talking about laughing in the face of subpoenas and outright lying. Things that were once considered impeachable offences.
Moreover, what is most unusual about the current rise in executive power is that is appears to be unstoppable. For example, after Wilson’s expansion of power, there was a decade of tamer executives (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover). After Nixon came Ford and Carter; both presidents who were more imperilled than imperial. But now there has been no such counter-balance. From Clinton in 1992, to Trump is 2020, executive power is here to stay.
Congress has attempted to bite-back, of course. This sitting Congress is the most diverse in history, for example; representing all corners of America’s demography.
Similarly the work of Democrats like Pelosi and Schiff has been credited by some. Having the bravery to push through with impeachment and demonstrating the political nous to prolong the process, thus ushering out further incrimination does demonstrates Congress’ effectiveness. The Lev Parnas’ interview, the GAO announcement and the unfolding, but incredibly worrying, mob-syle-hit-job on Maria Yovanovitch might never had come to light if it wasn’t for tactics that Congress allows. So sure, this is the Constitutionally correct thing to do, but what does it matter if nothing changes. Seriously, what does it matter?
Yesterday Chief Justice John Roberts swore in all 100 Senators under the ridiculous illusion of impartiality. But in December, just a few short weeks ago, Mitch McConnell — the most powerful Senator in chamber — freely said “I am not an impartial juror”. Around the same time, the once Never Trumper turned Presidential ass-kisser, Lindsay Graham said, with the same level of shamelessness, he would “not pretend to be a fair juror”. Of course you won’t, Lindsay. Why should you perform your Constitutional duty?
A further example is the well-meaning but ultimately pointless activity of Congress is the war powers resolution. Brought forward by Democrat Tim Kaine, but with the support of Republicans Mike Lee, Todd Young, and Susan Collins as co-sponsors. The resolution demands Trump seek consent from Congress before taking new military action against Iran. However, here’s the crux, the resolution is non-binding anyway. Even if it was binding, the President could either veto it or simply ignore it. Impeachment and the power to declare war are amongst Congress’ most powerful assets, but they are entirely redundant, despite the aforementioned attempts.
As the enumerated powers are ignored, it is no surprise the softer powers of Congress are routinely abused too. Money, corruption, constant campaigning, ridiculous re-districting are also contributing to the collapse of Congress. Not even some of the assumed benefits to being a member of Congress are worth it anymore. If you’re Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, or Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and you see small time Mayor Pete Buttigieg, or tech-bro Andrew Yang, or billionaire Tom Steyer out doing you in the race, you’d be forgiven for thinking “what is the point in all this?”
All of these examples should anger and embarrass all Americans, of all political colours, but the reality is, it does neither. As long as each side can get its small periodic ‘wins’ then everything is fine. Of course, it isn’t fine at all. An entire branch of government is broken, allowing for decades of executive growth beyond what could have been imagined.
This criticism is not anything new. For decades commentators have been saying how broken this branch is, but we are now in an entirely different age. One where both the hard and soft power of Congress and those who are elected to serve in its chambers has been made redundant. In 2017, the Washington Post wrote that Trump has been reminded that ‘this isn’t how the government works’. Well, actually, that is precisely how the government works. The worst part is, we are past the point of no return.