Now we know what it takes to nudge Congress’s sense of self-respect into a state of at least semi-consciousness.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, God bless her, is throwing a very public fit over findings that the CIA spied on Congress — on her Select Senate Intelligence Committee, specifically — as part of a campaign to undermine the committee’s investigation into an interrogation program that the agency does not much want to see investigated.
It’s a strange contradiction: Senators do not want for self-respect. If anything, the individual members of that august collection of a hundred self-identified future presidents and vice presidents suffer from excessive self-regard at levels that are frequently embarrassing and occasionally delusional. Look into the eyes of John Kerry or Joe Biden and consider for a moment the political incubator that hatched such specimens of Miltonic-Luciferian self-importance. But the Senate, and Congress as a whole, have been experiencing something of a crisis of confidence in recent decades. Our constitutional order makes Congress the effective seat of domestic governance: Only Congress can appropriate funds; only Congress can tax. Spending bills must originate in the House, presidential appointments are subject to Senate approval. Only Congress can coin money. And while the Constitution entrusts the president with some important powers regarding such outward-directed issues as military engagements, only Congress can declare war or ratify a treaty.
In theory, only Congress can make a law. But Congress of late has eroded its own legislative monopoly. The Affordable Care Act, to take one example, is not so much a legislative program as an enabling act, a vast collection of “the secretary shall”s that amounts to the legislative branch’s asking the executive branch to come up with a law so that Congress does not have to. Congress sometimes delegates its legislative powers intentionally, and sometimes it sits quietly while the executive branch simply arrogates congressional powers to itself, as the Environmental Protection Agency has done under the Clean Air Act. This happens in part because Congress is timid and lazy, disinclined to do the hard work of legislating — especially when there is no political incentive to do so. It also happens because Congress frequently likes the results: If the EPA enacts policies that congressional Democrats want to see enacted and saves them the difficulty of facing voters who disapprove of such policies, so much the better. The EPA is not up for reelection every two years. Or ever.
Members of the legislative branch understand that voters have limited spans of attention, a fact that may equal presidential ambition as a force behind our ever-more-imperial and ever-more-imperious executive. The presidency is relatively easy to follow: There’s just the one guy (how many Americans could name the complete Cabinet?), whereas there are hundreds of people in Congress, and all those committees and subcommittees, reconciliation, procedural votes, etc. In a sense, all eyes are on the presidency for the same reason that the Twilight books outsell the works of William Shakespeare or James Joyce: Compared to the 535 members of Congress and the seemingly endless permutations of them, one man is a neurologically bite-sized morsel. Thus our political discourse features such imaginary entities as the “Reagan deficits” and the “Clinton surplus,” even though the production of deficits and surpluses is a congressional matter rather than a presidential one. (O’Neill deficits and Gingrich surplus would be closer to the truth.) It is this dynamic that allowed Democratic senators to lead a pitiless campaign against George W. Bush based on an Iraq War that most of them voted for — in the public imagination, it’s “Iraq War = George W. Bush,” not “Iraq War = George W. Bush + Joe Biden + John Kerry + Hillary Clinton + Tom Daschle + Chuck Schumer + Mary Landrieu + Max Cleland + . . . ”
Which is to say, delegating its power and its place at the center of our constitutional order to a conveniently power-hungry executive is Congress’s way of avoiding responsibility for its actions and, in some cases, of getting done through executive action that which its members could not accomplish through legislative action.
Willing subservience to the presidency is not the mark of a legislative branch that has any meaningful sense of self-respect, or any real understanding of its constitutional role.
And while some Republicans have taken up the issue with admirable vigor, Congress as a whole cannot seem to get itself very much excited about such executive-branch abuses as using the IRS to harass and suppress the president’s political opponents. But spying on Senator Feinstein’s committee computers? That may be enough to get Congress’s attention. After all, we’re not talking about leaning on some obscure tea-party peons in Houston — we’re talking about members of Congress, i.e., the sort of people who are very important to members of Congress.
If Senator Feinstein’s claims are in the main substantively correct, then the CIA has done serious violence to the law and to our constitutional order. And I suspect that she is largely on the money: CIA Director John Brennan has said that the facts will not support her allegations of “this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking,” the presence of the word “tremendous” in that sentence suggesting that what is really in dispute here is not the CIA’s actions but merely the scale of the CIA’s actions.
Congress has not been very interested in the abuses of the imperial executive when its victims were ordinary American citizens, or even Congress’s own constitutional turf. But now that the CIA is making the matter personal, we ordinary citizens might have some hope that Congress will be spurred into action by its members’ vanity, if not by their sense of duty.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.