This is part one of a three part series on Congress.
The Current State of Affairs
Last week, Barney Frank said something stunning – he said that Barack Obama needed to take more assertive leadership in the current economic crisis.
At first blush, Frank’s statement might not seem troubling. On further reflection, Frank is admitting that Congress is unable to provide leadership for the nation. Frank’s comment is especially revealing when you consider that Barney Frank has a history as one of the House’s more outspoken members – he’s no fading violet but he’s still asking for the President-elect to offer Congress leadership.
A few months ago, on Bill Moyers, Andrew Bacevich described Congress as a dysfunctional institution, one incapable of ending an unpopular war being waged by an even more unpopular President. Over the last decade as Congress has become an increasingly and distressingly incapable institution – incapable of carrying out its Constitutional duties, an isolated backwater whose members are focused narrowly winning re-election that they have little ability or interest in actually governing. Congress, in other words, has utterly collapsed as a functioning branch of government.
Basic civics: The US government is divided between three supposedly equal branches. Each branch is given specific powers, but the other two branches are given the authority, as necessary, to rein them in as necessary. If Congress passes a law that violates citizens’ rights, the courts can strike that law down. Congress, however, has the right to refuse to seat a Federal judge as well as to impeach them once they are on the bench. The president nominates the judges but those judges are not answerable to the president. Presidents are able to propose legislation, to veto legislation, and to enforce it. Congress doesn’t choose the president but is able, in the case of high crimes and misdemeanors, to impeach the president.
At various points in US history, the balance of power between the branches has changed – at some points Congress held more power and stature than the president or the courts. Throughout the post-World War Two era, Congress’ power and influence devolved as the President became more and more influential and powerful – one might even say imperial. Andrew Bacevich observed in his interview on Bill Moyers that Congress has relinquished a great deal of its power to the President, often in the guise of national security. Congress – trapped in endless internal bickering – become less and less able to actually lead.
Leaders of both parties have often passively deferred to Presidential leadership – waiting to take their cues from the White House. Congress has utterly failed as an effective check on executive power and has utterly collapsed as a balancing force in the government. Robert Byrd argued, in Losing America, the part of the problem lay in the mismatch between Congress and the President in terms of information. The President heads a branch of government with several million employees. By contrast, a few thousand, including office staff and the CBO report directly go Congress. Congress is utterly dependent on the President for information about intelligence and national security. If the president instructs his appointees to lie, Congress has no way of disproving it (fwiw, I don’t think the solution is to create a separate national security apparatus answerable to congress – it is to bring the reform the current system so it is answerable to both executive and legislative branches). Byrd may be a blowhard with an overweening ego, but he is spot when he argues that Congress has stopped performing its duties as a counterweight to the presidency.
The principle of checks and balances requires the three branches actually function as equals.
A huge part of the problem rests in the inherently anti-democratic nature of the Senate (a problem I’ll address later). Congress – rather than acting as an agent of positive change has been hijacked by the most conservative and reactionary forces in American society. Congress had the power to strike down Jim Crow, to end Iraq, to create policies to deal with the current economic crisis and yet it has consistently failed to do so. At the same time, Congressional leaders have increasingly followed the White House – forgoing efforts to maintain Congress as an independent and powerful branch of government, they have lapsed into pointless rounds of unproductive debate and procedural blind alleys.
Worryingly, the legislative branch has all but abdicated its power of the purse. The House, not the White House, not the Senate, not the Courts, is empowered to propose spending bills. Tax bills should begin in the House as well. Taxes and budgets are the core of government power and policy. Yet Congress does little more than nibble around the edges of presidential proposals – using their power to add earmarks to bills so individual members can claim to be working for their districts. The earmarks laughingly decried by John McCain exemplify congressional weakness – a debased and powerless body currying voters’ favor with pork barrel projects.
Systems theory offers some insight into what has happened here.
As Congress has failed to do its job, citizens have turned to the courts and the executive. A feedback loop formed and reinforced legislative weakness. The Courts overturned Congress’s laws, the Executive ignored, worked around or manipulated Congress into doing what it wanted. Congress, trapped in its own weakness became increasingly incoherent – unable to formulate policy, Congressional leadership had drifted badly. Policy has been sacrificed in the name of procedure. I’ve criticized Democrats for engaging in an endless series of false compromises, believing that bipartisan support meant that bills must be good since they could pass.
The internal culture of Congress was so skewed against taking stands, against making waves, against leading that members have become unable to make policy, unable to lead, unable to act as a counterweight against the other branches.
But wait! What about the Clinton impeachment? Wasn’t it an act of a powerful, coequal branch of government?
No. The Clinton Impeachment was the only action left to a weak legislative branch.
The Contract With America was a smart PR move, but it was unworkable as actual policy. As a result, the Republican Revolution of 1994 quickly collapsed as a force for setting national policy. With each political move effectively countered or outright stolen by a cagey and astute Clinton White House, Newt and the other Congressional Republicans played defense most of the time. Their biggest, boldest move – the government shutdown – blew up in their faces.
Unable to be part of the national debate, an increasingly irrelevant Congress engaged in frantic efforts ever less effective efforts to guide public debate and policy. Unwilling and unable to engage in mature policy negotiations with the Clinton administration, Congress resorted to scandal-mongering and endless, pointless investigations. Despite years of time and millions of dollars, Ken Starr was unable to prove any wrongdoing by the Clintons in Whitewater – and resorted to a petty, panty-sniffing moralizing.
Gingrich, unsurprisingly, lost his leadership role in the House over the affair. The impeachment was so transparently trivial and motivated by little more than anti-Clinton animus that the American public simply rejected it. Republican leadership misread the public’s mood and mishandled the shutdown and came cross as petulant and puerile rather than as mature leaders debating the great issues of the day.
After Impeachment, Congress shuddered to a halt. So ineffectual had Congress become that it was unable to hold meaningful debate about the Iraq war and fell into jingoistic nationalism or cynical and empty political posturing. At a time prominent Democratic members should have been rallying all congressional members to demand a full and thorough debate, when they should have been acting as a counterweight to the Bush administration, they engaged in political calculus so cynical, so shallow that it destroyed Kerry’s presidential run before it got off the ground and damaged Hillary Clinton’s credibility sufficiently to create an opening for Barack Obama. Republicans, by contrast, were so desperate for a leader of any kind that they rallied behind Bush as he treated Congress with contempt.
After a promising start in 2007, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have fallen prey to the institutional malaise.
How were they unable to use Congressional power to end a profoundly unpopular war being waged by a profoundly unpopular president?
Republican Senators have abused their power to shut down debate and stop bills from reaching the president’s desk. Congress should have been sending bill after bill to end the Iraq war and withdraw US troops – Bush could have vetoed them left, right and center. Instead, a minority party with no plan was using legislative tricks to prevent any action at all. Some commentators have pointed out that the now lame duck 110th Congress had more filibusters than any other Congress in history. The filibuster – once the final measure to stop bad policy- has become nothing more than a tool for thwarting the legislative process.
So out of practice is Congress as setting public policy that in the face of the worst economic meltdown in decades, members of Congress have been reduced to following the lead of the Bush administration – which quite literally has no clue about what to do beyond throw money at the problem and hope something that looks like a solution emerges. Congresscritters – absorbed with Congressional infighting and endlessly jockeying for chairmanships within congress – have utterly lost the ability to actually lead or wield power. Paradoxically, beyond saying “no” members of Congress have no real influence over policy. As individuals and an institution, they are simply incapable of setting the terms of debate.
The Collapse of Congress has far-reaching and devastating effects. Popular measures fail, unpopular laws pass, public debate is stifled and twisted. Congress’ ineffectuality has allowed bad ideas – the war in Iraq, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts – to become public policy without anything like a full and fair debate. Leaders of both parties have yielded to partisan loyalty rather than patriotic public service. In the current climate, it makes sense to fight to win and preserve congressional majority rather than to lead a fight good policy. But it has resulted in a government so dysfunctional that it cannot act in accord with the will the people. The practice of our Constitutional government is at odds with our democratic principles. To put it even more bluntly: Democracy, rather than being served by our government, is being subverted by it.