mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
the first branch
Can Congress Rebuild Itself During the Trump Presidency?

Congress was intended to be the center of political life in the United States, but over successive administrations it has seen its power, influence and effectiveness curtailed, both because of its own dysfunction and timidity and because Presidents, judges, and administrative agencies have progressively encroached on its domain.

Some Republican members of Congress hope that the unified Republican government will create a political opening for reforms designed to increase the potency of the First Branch. Politico reports:

Sen. Tom Cotton and Rep. Trey Gowdy on Tuesday made a forceful pitch for Congress to claw back some control from the White House under the Trump presidency, framing it as a time-sensitive opportunity to reset the balance of power.

The two prominent Republicans argued that President Barack Obama, who vowed in January of 2014 to act “with or without Congress,” threw the constitutional equilibrium between the three branches “wildly out of whack.” […]

Gowdy and Cotton on Friday framed the Trump presidency as once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when Republicans could restore constitutional balance without rousing suspicions that their desire to clip the wings of the presidency is politically motivated.

As we noted in February, the problem isn’t just that Congress is disempowered; it’s that it has underperformed: “Most of the big laws Congress has passed in recent years, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, have been clunkers: the Homeland Security Act, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, the Affordable Care Act. Add sequestration to the mix, and you have a cavalcade of legislative failure.” Meanwhile, as Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, “Congress has not followed its own rules for timely agreement on budgets since at least 2008.”

Major reforms are needed—to committee structure, to staffing and to procedure—to make the Congress perform its duties competently and effectively no matter which party has a majority. Here’s hoping that GOP members follow through with their promises to restore the power of the legislature, rather than conveniently sidestepping responsibility because their party will soon control the other branches and allowing Congressional authority to continue to wither.

Features Icon
Features
show comments
  • Beauceron

    The Left was so sure they had a permanent lock on national office– with very good reason– they expanded the power of the executive. Now that Trump has surprised almost everyone– me most of all– and actually won, I have no doubt those powers will be rolled back. Until the Left gains power again.

  • Gene

    If Trump himself is a failure as a president, but his time in office coincides with Congress and the press both beginning to do their goddamned jobs again, it will be worthwhile.

    • SDN

      Which immediately begs the question of why they DIDN’T do their jobs during the Age of Obama.

      Actually, there’s no question: it isn’t the action they have a problem with, it’s that they aren’t the ones doing it and the results of the action don’t further their taste for tyranny over the Deplorables.

      We understand perfectly: The Uniparty of Leftists and lapdogs hates the actual Americans in flyover country, and we shouldn’t trust them at all. The only question is how long before we recognize that These Are No Longer Our Countrymen and remove them from the country.

      • Andrew Allison

        You’re half right. They are to busy running for reelection to do their jobs, which have been handed over to wet-behind-the-ears staffers. They don’t even read half the stuff they put up to vote.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Actually the problem isn’t that too many of the staffers are ‘wet behind the ears’, but rather quite the opposite. Too many of the staffers in DC are long time veterans of the system, and often end up being the real power.

          • Andrew Allison

            Not so. You are describing the lobbyists and consultants (like Gruber). I read a fascinating, and disturbing, article online (which I unfortunately can’t locate) recently which described this in some detail in the context of the DC bar scene.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Quite a few of my former students are now involved with various staffs as staff-members and aides, so no…I am not talking about lobbyists and consultants (a different problem entirely, though I do agree that it is part of the same mess). It isn’t particularly unusual in DC to run into senior aides who have outlast 2 or 3 bosses, and several who wield considerably more power than most congressmen. This is a particularly big problem among members of the CBC, where you have congressmen (and hence staff) who have been around for decades.

            Yes, there are tons of junior staff members who couldn’t find their ass with both hands and a hunting dog, but they are merely bracken….the mighty oaks are the senior aides.

          • Andrew Allison
          • f1b0nacc1

            Interesting article, and completely out of sync with what I am hearing. With that said (and they do cite their sources, while mine are more anecdotal, and we all know that the plural of anecdote is *NOT* “data”), one thing I did see looking at the underlying data is that the argument seems to be that staff is moving from committees and orgs (like GAO and CBO) to individual member’s offices, even when the staff continues to server the same members. This would mean that the committees (for instance) would be steadily weakened and have less (and younger) staff while the Members might not necessarily have the same experience.

            Excellent read though….in either case, I have to reconnect with my former students and get their fix on the situation, and if it differs, hold their feet to the fire to explain why!

          • Andrew Allison

            I’ll be very interested in the outcome. The article is not, incidentally, the one to which I referred, which I have still been unable to locate.

  • EMyrt

    Use the new power to roll back the intrusive Federal government and reinvigorate state’s rights.

  • Disappeared4x

    “…Major reforms are needed—to committee structure, to staffing and to procedure…” is another ‘rearrange the deck chairs on the
    Titanic’ concept. The lawyer-legislator cohort needs to learn their ‘job’ is not to pass ever more laws to ‘solve problems’.

    Would it be a good idea to force Congress to start writing all new laws as Haiku*, to force economy of thought?

    Congress should spend the next four years reforming, in 140 pages or less, all of those failed legislation monsters “…Homeland Security
    Act, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, the Affordable Care Act…[add Dodd-Frank]”.

    *Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae though often loosely translated as “syllables”), in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5

    • Jim__L

      Congress should be required to read every law in full on the House floor and on the Senate floor, *with a quorum of Congress members in attendance* before being allowed to vote it into law.

      Congress should further have the power to expeditiously fire any Executive Branch official if that official overstepped his or her authority in either executing a law so passed, or for implementing rules that are contrary to the intent of the law, or overstepping the Federal Government’s actual writ. Feel free to appeal to the Supreme Court if you think the firing was unjustified, with the default presumption that the Court declines to hear your case on the basis that it’s a busy place.

      • LarryD

        “… have the power to expeditiously fire …” Congress does. Its called Impeachment. I think its been under utilized, because Congresscritters don’t want responsibility. To address that, I would like to see Term Limits extended to Congress (indeed, to the entire civilian side of government). The ancient Athenians paid attention to preventing anyone from establishing power bases in their government, we need to follow that example.

        Repeal and replace the Administrative Law Act, which violates the powers and responsibilities set forth in Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution. All of the surviving “Agencies” must be directly accountable to one of the three branches, Congress, the Executive, the Supreme Court. Agencies reporting to Congress may propose draft legislative language. but only Congress can turn it into law, by the already specified Constitutional process. Executive agencies can only enforce law, not make it.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Remember though, traditional haiku also must have weather references. So NOAA legislation would be safe, they have that….

  • Frank Natoli

    Hah. Anybody remember when Congress, i.e., Ted Cruz, attempted to assert the power of the purse two or three winters ago? To challenge the President who was doing anything he [expletive deleted] pleased with his cell phone and pen? Anybody remember the articles excoriating, demonizing Cruz? Even the ostensibly “conservative” Wall Street Journal? How McConnell and Boehner piled on?
    I remember.
    And now, with a different flavor of President, all of a sudden there’s GRAVE CONCERN over an imperial Presidency and the need for the Congress to “rebuild itself”?
    Who is kidding whom?

    • Jim__L

      Hey, it’s more likely to build bipartisan consensus with Trump in the White House.

      Trump’s whole “play the game to win” example makes it more likely.

  • Jim__L

    “Major reforms are needed—to committee structure, to staffing and to
    procedure—to make the Congress perform its duties competently and
    effectively no matter which party has a majority. ”

    Require Congressmen to hire as aides a certain proportion of personnel who were born in their states, and who attended college in-state.

    The swamp needs to be drained of Ivy Leaguers.

    • LarryD

      I’m willing to entertain the idea that Members of Congress and their staffs should be payed by their State. And require same to reside half the year in their State. Physically reside, not “maintain legal residence”. And Term Limits.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Term limits for both congress and their aides, including all staffs of committees.

      I like the attended college in state, though let me suggest we add “at a public institution only”

    • PoohBear57

      Require that congress-persons and their staffs be subject to the same laws they pass for their constituents, including their benefit programs. Obamacare would never have passed if members of Congress had been subject to it, for instance.

  • vepxistqaosani

    As a committed right-winger, I think I’m allowed to cite the left-winger Jonathan Rauch, whose concept of “demosclerosis” does much to explain Washington (and Albany and Sacramento and …). In part, his thesis is simply a rewarming of the cliche “If you steal from Peter to pay Paul, you’re guaranteed to get Paul’s vote.”

    But the fundamental problem — not that Rauch puts it this way — is that the Federal government has too much power and there are too many laws and regulations at every level — especially the Federal — that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

    The solution is radically to prune both laws and regulations such that the only ones left are those which we are both willing and able to enforce to the letter. Who (other than lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, and liberals) would not prefer such a legal climate to the current one, where there are too many laws and regulations for anyone to comprehend or any government to enforce, so that all enforcement is completely dependent on the whims, velleities, and self-interests of prosecutors and bureaucrats?

  • Fat_Man

    “Congress has not followed its own rules for timely agreement on budgets since at least 2008.”

    A single point of failure, the Senate Democrats have deliberately blocked timely budgets for the entire Obama maladministration.

    It is time for Congress to end this travesty, and if it requires final repeal of the filibuster rule, so be it.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service