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Congress crippled by ambivalence

Guest Blogger

Congress often doesn’t live up to the ambitions that the Framers of the Constitution imagined for it. In their niftily crafted separation of powers, the Framers meant Congress to be a strong competitor with the president and Supreme Court. But Congress regularly surrenders to the executive branch, leaving itself weakened and then fighting to recover its rightful role, as Jasmine Farrier explains in “Congressional Ambivalence: The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority,” recently released by the University Press of Kentucky. Here, Farrier, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville, describes the way Congress vacillates between an assertion of power and abdication.

By Jasmine Farrier

Our complex system of separation of powers was designed by the Constitution’s framers to keep federal power in check by making it hard to pass legislation quickly, with the assumption that Congress (particularly the House of Representatives) would take over the whole government in a majority stampede if given the opportunity.

So by making the branches different from one other in structure, election cycle, and constituency, the Framers encouraged relatively diverse, locally-infused perspectives. Checks and balances were designed to goose the system’s desire for continuous, but peaceful, conflict by sprinkling each branch with parts of the others’ powers.

The assumption was that the members of each branch would take the bait and try to increase their authority or, at the very least, use their Constitutional arsenal to fight against encroachment from the others.

Fast forward to 20th century, put down the dog-eared copy of the Federalist Papers, and the system no longer works as advertised. Unlike the 19th Century, where the three branches engaged in decade-to-decade dances of dominance on all major policy dilemmas of the times, Congress has simmered itself down to a national afterthought that makes headlines for after-the-fact oversight finger wagging and gathering appropriations crumbs, rather than co-equal leadership of the nation.

By contrast, almost all recent presidents tell us constantly that the “national interest” depends on expanding their institutional power, regardless of the electoral and policy divisions they have sown. Naturally, if a president fails to utilize and articulate his powers in this way, he is deemed weak.

As for the Supreme Court, once members are past the kabuki deference and humility-laden rhetoric of the confirmation process, the Court as an institution does not shrink from its own authority. The justices may wait for years for the right case before choosing to wade into an issue, and then present a bitter split, but they do not say out loud that they are institutionally incompetent to take on hard issues.

Congress, however, takes a distant third place on the scale of institutional chutzpah. They often shout from the Capitol’s dometop that they stink at almost everything and should be stripped of power or ignored because legislative prerogatives gum up the works by pandering to local citizens who vote in elections. But down the road, after president-led policies become problematic, members re-think their place and say the president was wrong, wrong, wrong all along and the members kind of knew it. This inconsistent and downright weird institutional behavior crosses policy issues, partisan dominance, and the occupant in the White House.

In my book, I label such patterns the “cycles of ambivalence.” Variations on Congress’s give-and-take (but mostly give) span the past four decades of deficit reduction and appropriations rules, military base closures, intelligence policy, fast-track trade legislation and, of course, war.

After the 2006 election, it seemed that Congress was overdue for some ambition to run things. Yet the Democrats did not push all out to reverse President Bush’s signature policies, preferring to deflect ownership of deficits, the Patriot Act, and the Iraq War on the president and even giving him more power through the reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and by approving each war budget supplemental.

The TARP $700 billion “blank check” in the fall of 2008 was the bookend moment for the Bush presidency when members of both parties once again suffered paralyzing institutional doubts that they could counteract the administration in the face of a crisis. During and after, many members show ambivalence.

Then comes President Obama who initially opened his arms to Congress by creating an insider-heavy inner circle and cabinet and who encouraged members to fill in details on the stimulus and health care legislation. Yet on Afghanistan, military commissions, signing statements and cutting the budget deficit, we start to see the usual signs of a muscular executive and ambivalent Congress.

Some of the same members who are trying to defeat each of the president’s key initiatives are calling for a new line-item veto and other restrictive congressional rules with the assumption that presidents see the whole budget better than the members who think he is wrong, wrong, wrong in every other way.

So if 2010 is 1994, we will see simultaneously more and less Congress bashing next year. Starting in 1995, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Bob Dole, Trent Lott, et al. tried to undermine Bill Clinton in innumerable ways yet pushed the Line-Item Veto Act and the Balanced Budget Amendment, saying over and over that Congress misuses its powers.

Despite the Capitol Hill reminders of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and other congressional giants of the 19th century, congressional leaders from both parties do not connect keeping their troops together with consistently defending their institution. This behavior can be blamed on technologies the Framers could not have imagined.

More deeply, Congress struggles to be more than a sum of its parts. In addition to chamber party and committee cleavages, the House and Senate bear no sibling resemblance. In trying to tame a potential bully, the Framers stacked the deck against the Congress. Then, over time, the two chambers exaggerated their differences through complex rules and customs. All this leads to institutional anxiety and self doubt. Blame the parents!

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 23, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: congressional weakness; failure of congress; congress and the president;  
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