President Obama has submitted a budget proposal to Congress. There are many possible responses that Congress might offer in return. The correct one is this: “Thank you for your input, Mr. President. But we’ll take it from here.”
We have three branches of government for a reason, and the Constitution invests each branch with certain powers and responsibilities, establishing divisions within government that have shown themselves, for more than a couple of centuries now, to be extraordinarily prudent. The president is not a prime minister, nor is he the republican model of government’s ersatz king. He is the chief administrative officer in the federal government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He is given special responsibilities in the matter of foreign relations, notably in the negotiation of treaties and the making of war, though in both cases his authority is limited by that of the legislative branch, which can reject a proposed treaty and has the power to declare (or decline to declare) war.
He does not have any special constitutional role when it comes to budgets. The Constitution invests the House with the power to initiate revenue bills and the Senate the power to propose or concur with amendments to such bills. The president has a relatively large role in external affairs; in internal affairs, particularly matters of taxing and spending, Congress should — should — play the dominant role. Which is not to say that the president shouldn’t propose a budget plan, if he thinks he has some good ideas. (This one doesn’t, though he may think that he does.) But Congress is under no special obligation to act on them, or to give them any special consideration.
One of the problems with our currently lopsided mode of government — in which the president is the central player in government across the board — is that we have come to think of the president as the national actor and Congress as the national reactor. As Charles C. W. Cooke pointed out in a recent episode of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” the media and the political classes inevitably will greet the president’s budget proposal as the starting point in a negotiation between the branches, meaning that if Congress has ideas of its own — which it should — then this will be received as resistance to the president, whose implicit authority in this theater, as in practically all others, is simply assumed. It is for this reason that we find ourselves in the odd position that when Congress disagrees with the president, it is Congress that is characterized as “obstructing.” Never mind, for the moment, that obstruction is a fundamental feature of American governance, and a very useful one — why should the president, regardless of his party, be deferred to as though that were the natural order of things?
Part of this is a result of the truncated attention span of the American public and the media. There is only one president, so he is relatively easy to keep up with. There are 535 members of Congress, a mess of committees and subcommittees, various obscure legislative processes, etc. In the great tragedy of American politics, the president is Hamlet, while the House and the Senate are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — or Guildenstern and Rosencrantz; it is difficult to keep them straight. Part of it is also the lamentable and nearly universal human gravitation toward paternalistic rulers, the endless procession of Big Men who have endured from caveman days to the present. Members of Congress, who ought to be jealous of their own prerogatives, have all too often abased themselves before the heroic presidency, especially when the president is a member of their own party, and especially especially when deferring to the executive liberates them from making difficult and potentially unpopular decisions.
Congress ought to have some institutional self-respect, defend its proper role in domestic affairs, and show a little love for the best of its traditions.
That means a return to “regular order,” especially on budgetary matters. That means no grand bargain with the president, just the boring, laborious, unglamorous process of sending twelve appropriations bills through the committee process and then bringing them to the floor of each legislative chamber, formally conferencing to work out differences between the houses, and then presenting their work to the president. If he vetoes one or all of those appropriations bills, he vetoes it, and the process begins again — from the beginning. The president can offer his usual non-argument for why he should be deferred to — “I won” — and 535 members of Congress can answer in kind.
Political outcomes matter, especially in the short run. But political process matters, too, especially in the long run. And the distortion of the American processes of government — mutilating a republic until it resembles a perverse blend of Gaullist rule-by-fiat, mob rule, and beauty pageant — will prove expensive and destructive in the long run, for Americans of all political persuasions. Democrats who are for the moment enamored of the caesaro-papist presidency should meditate for a moment on the prospect of a President Walker, President Jindal, or President Paul.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.