According to the Constitution, the legislature is the first and most powerful branch of government. And yet, many believe — on the left and the right — that the institution has atrophied.
By all accounts, House speaker Paul Ryan is eager to change that. He has his work cut out for him.
In other words, it’s easier to wag a finger at mistakes than to be accountable for them. Congress has largely become a finger-wagging bystander. It’s great at expressing outrage. But when it comes to the messy work of legislating, it’s fallen down on the job.
Other aspects of Congress’s authority have been hacked away and sold off in pieces. The Constitution says only Congress can levy taxes. The Founders had this crazy idea called “no taxation without representation.” And yet, numerous agencies are self-funding, raising money without having to worry about Congress’s power of the purse. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gets its revenue from a skim of the profits from the Federal Reserve.
Not only are such arrangements a hate crime against the Constitution, they also make agencies less accountable to Congress and, by extension, the people. These agencies are, furthermore, often unaccountable to the judicial branch. Bureaucrats have their own administrative courts, which routinely deny traditional due process to plaintiffs.
President Obama has certainly tried to do that. But it’s turned out that his powers of persuasion have been greatly exaggerated, particularly in this age of polarization.
Unable to coax the country in his direction, Obama has relied on his beloved “pen and phone” strategy — that is, signing executive orders — often to the cheers of congressional Democrats apparently eager to celebrate their institutional gelding. The Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth argues that Obama is the first president to recognize that Neustadt is obsolete and so is the notion of a lame-duck presidency. Obama can keep making policy right until the day he leaves office.The challenge for Ryan is multifaceted. He wants to restore Congress’s primacy, but to do so he must also transform the GOP into what he calls a “proposition party,” not an opposition party (which may be difficult if Obama does everything he can to invite opposition from conservatives). Both require time he may not have. Clawing back the legislative function can’t be done overnight and requires a cultural transformation of Congress itself.
Meanwhile, both parties’ front-runners don’t seem interested in deferring to Congress. Hillary Clinton has already said that Obama’s unilateralism hasn’t gone far enough, and vowed to go further. Donald Trump promises to just make stuff happen via his superhuman management skills.
We already know liberals will applaud an imperial Democratic president. I can only hope conservatives will stick with Ryan under a Republican one.
— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2016 Tribune Content Agency