Make Congress Great Again
Posted on June 21, 2016(This originally appeared in The Hill)
Should Donald Trump win the White House, which at this point seems rather unlikely, one unexpected benefit would be the resurgent power of the legislative branch.
“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” It is no accident that this is Article I of the Constitution. The founders wanted Congress to have most of the power.
When I first came to Washington in 1989, conservatives warned about Congress having too much power. Partly that was because Democrats had dominated the legislative branch for most of the previous 60 years. Republicans had little use for Congress because it never had enough votes to run it.
Indeed, in 1994, the No. 1 goal for Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), then minority whip, and his Contract with America was to restrain the power of Congress. The House GOP promised to cut staff by a third; limit the terms of committee chairmen, who were seen as being too powerful for their own good; require that all laws passed on the rest of the country be applied to Congress as well; and otherwise restrain the power of the legislative branch.
Since that historic election, conservatives have largely been successful. Congress is a shell of its former self. It simply doesn’t have the power to impose its will on the White House, no matter which party occupies the Oval Office.
The coup de grâce came when Republicans banned the use of congressionally directed spending initiatives, better known as earmarks. Despite the fact that all spending is supposed to be controlled by the legislative branch, conservatives successfully imposed upon congressional leaders a prohibition of earmarks, giving President Obama vast power to spend as he sees fit, without congressional input.
Banning earmarks not only gave Obama more power, it also made it more difficult for congressional leaders to impose discipline so they could move their agendas. It is no coincidence that since the House banned the use of earmarks, its approval ratings have not climbed above 20 percent.
Congress has willfully sacrificed much of its power, but it is also bedeviled by fierce partisanship that makes it impossible to act collectively to withstand the power of the executive. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate minority leader, care first about the fate of their party and less about the power of Congress as an institution. They will defend Obama, no matter how much he abuses his executive power, because they believe he is helping them to achieve their partisan goals. The president’s executive order overreach on immigration is but one example of the congressional minority looking the other way when an action is clearly unconstitutional but politically advantageous.
The war on terror has also greatly enhanced the power of the executive at the expense of the legislative branch. The president now can order the assassination of anybody that national security deems a threat, anywhere in the world — including American citizens.
A Trump presidency would change all of this.
If there is one thing that unites both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, it is the sense that Trump doesn’t have the temperament to be president.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) doesn’t agree on much with Pelosi, but they would find common ground when it comes to restraining the power of a President Trump.
Trump might try to use his bully pulpit to compel action from the Congress, but congressional Republicans don’t owe their majority to the bellowing billionaire. And they would act accordingly.
They will work together to restrain the power of the executive. They will work closely to monitor Trump’s national security decisions. They will use the power of the purse to strictly limit his ability to carry out some of his more outlandish campaign promises.
Trump has promised to make America great again. But his presidency will have the unintended consequence of making Congress great again.