Politics & Policy

An Imperial Sham

Sen. Harry Reid on Capitol Hill, Dec. 13, 2011
Senator Reid endorses the imperial presidency.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a man whose political success is largely attributable to the aura of befuddled incompetence he uses to disarm his adversaries, was a failed Watergate baby.

In 1974, a slew of often sanctimonious and very liberal Democratic politicians rode the tide of understandable national disgust with Richard Nixon to Congress. Then the lieutenant governor of Nevada, Reid ran for the U.S. Senate, hoping to tie his opponent to the “imperial presidency” that had allegedly sprung up ex nihilo under Nixon.

Given Nevada’s inherent conservatism (at least back then), Reid cast himself as an incorruptible champion of limited government and political honor. The New York Times reported on Oct. 24, 1974, that Reid “would cut government spending by reducing the maze of federal agencies, a bureaucracy that controls much of Nevada life and that, according to Mr. Reid, has become a dangerous fourth branch of government.”

#ad#Reid has made some adjustments since he lost that election. Last year, he insisted that Congress had cut the federal government to the bone and could not cut any further lest we hit such vital arteries of the body politic as the federally subsidized cowboy-poetry festival in northern Nevada.

But let’s get back to the imperial presidency for a moment. Nixon’s was indeed a good example. But, for liberals, presidencies are imperial only when Republicans are at the helm. Nixon’s error was to continue the inexorable growth of the executive branch hatched by Woodrow Wilson and set loose by Franklin Roosevelt. During the height of the Watergate hearings, liberal Democratic senator Alan Cranston observed, “Those who tried to warn us back at the beginning of the New Deal of the dangers of one-man rule that lay ahead on the path we were taking toward strong, centralized government may not have been so wrong.”

Reid is as incapable of such honest introspection as he is of cracking a smile that doesn’t make its recipients feel unsafe.

In 2007, the Democrats controlling the Senate were fed up with George W. Bush’s recess appointments. Majority Leader Reid, feigning great sadness over the sorry state of our republic, resorted to the extraordinary tactic of keeping the Senate in pro-forma session so as to prevent the imperial Bush from doing an end-run around the confirmation process. The move was celebrated by liberal commentators as a brave and necessary assertion of congressional power and was supported by then-senator Barack Obama.

Fast-forward to this week. The Senate has once again been in pro-forma session in order to keep President Obama from making recess appointments. Reid agreed to the tactic as part of negotiations with Republicans last year.

#page#Arguing that the maneuver is nothing more than a gimmick, Obama ignored the Senate’s authority and appointed Richard Cordray to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which was created by the Dodd-Frank legislation allegedly to prevent the excesses that led to the financial crisis. If it wasn’t clear enough that the appointment was nakedly political, Obama made the announcement at a campaign rally in the swing state of Ohio, Cordray’s home state.

With the alacrity one normally associates with court jesters and royal spittoon cleaners, Reid immediately endorsed the president’s decision, accepting the logic that calls a maneuver he invented a sham.

But the spectacle is so much more sordid than that. The CFPB is a constitutional affront, the crowning achievement of this White House’s mantra of never letting a crisis go to waste.

#ad#The agency has the power to regulate any practices it deems “unfair” — primarily the practices of institutions and businesses that had nothing whatsoever to do with the financial crisis.

Indeed, it has blank-check power to write the rules it wants to enforce. Worse, it cannot be reined in by Congress, because Dodd-Frank gave it a self-funding mechanism. It can simply take up to 12 percent of the Federal Reserve’s operating expenses to do whatever it wants. The power of Congress is ultimately the power of the purse. But in their finite wisdom, Democratic lawmakers gelded themselves. They also insulated the rogue agency from the courts, requiring that judges defer to the CFPB’s legal theories.

So here we have Reid, a man who tried to enter the national stage by promising to be an honorable foe of the imperial presidency and the metastasizing growth of federal bureaucracies, thriving on the national stage by enabling exactly those trends when it suits his party. And all it cost was his honor.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

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