This might come as a surprise to many but, in addition to conducting pointless investigations of Republican presidents, Congress actually has a serious function in our government. Shockingly, there was a time in this country’s history when Congress crafted laws. In fact, Congress not only legislated, it did so without direct presidential direction.
Until the 20th century, presidents rarely intervened in the legislative process, preferring to stick to fulfilling their constitutionally mandated legislative duties (i.e., giving an annual state of the union address and either vetoing or signing legislation into law). James Burnham described the role of most 19th century presidents as one of being a “leader to the legislature” rather than a “legislative leader.”
Historically, congressional leaders were elected on a platform specific to their states and/or to their home districts. Together, these congressional leaders formulated a legislative agenda that would enact laws that broadly aligned with their state and home districts’ interests. As Burnham explains, prior to the 20th century, “bills proposed for congressional enactment were never written by an executive official in an executive office and then transmitted to Congress.” However, according to Burnham, “In the post-1933 epoch probably more than half of the enacted statutes (excluding private bills and those of purely local interest) originate, in basic text as well as policy substance, in the executive branch.”
While there had been flirtations with transforming the president into the chief legislative officer before 1933, it was with Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the presidency moved from being merely the occasional home to an “energetic” executive to the expectation that the president would be the primary facilitator of major legislation. FDR and his supporters justified these executive excesses as being necessary in the face of the twin crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Yet, even after FDR’s passing, the basic governing paradigm―the political regime that was created during his three terms in office―not only outlasted his administration, but was expanded upon by all of his last 12 successors, Democrat and Republican alike!
align=”left” size=””Until the 20th century, presidents rarely intervened in the legislative process, preferring to stick to fulfilling their constitutionally mandated legislative duties (i.e., giving an annual state of the union address and either vetoing or signing legislation into law). James Burnham described the role of most 19th century presidents as one of being a “leader to the legislature” rather than a “legislative leader.”]
Even under President Ronald Reagan, the most conservative man to win the presidency in decades, the powers of the executive consumed those of the supposedly coequal legislative branch. Former FDR aide-turned-presidential-historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. made a career of analyzing the rise of the “imperial presidency” (of course, he blamed it all on Richard Nixon—the preferred Republican bogeyman until Reagan and then Trump replaced him—while excusing the excesses of his old boss, FDR, on the grounds that Roosevelt had to contend with a national crisis).
Regardless of how one comes down on the issue of executive power, the fact remains that the entire concept of a president playing an active role in the creation of legislation is relatively new in our nation’s history. Many Republicans today made explicit campaign promises that they were not only going to legislate according to conservative ideals, but that they were going to return power to the American people by getting Congress to exercise more of its constitutional authority.
Apparently those were just words. While President Barack Obama reigned, Congressional Republicans told their constituents that they were engaged in a long-running legislative holding action until they could receive reinforcements on the Hill. When the GOP won the House in 2010, they told their voters that it wasn’t enough. So, the voters gave the GOP the Senate. But that still wasn’t enough to stem the tide of Obama’s statist agenda. The GOP needed to win the presidency. The voters fulfilled their end of the bargain in 2016. In typical fashion, the Congressional Republicans are finding new and creative ways to excuse their inaction.
Now, because the Republican sitting in the Oval Office isn’t Jeb Bush, but instead the “offensive” and unconventional Donald Trump, the Congressional GOP leaders tell us that they can do nothing because Trump is hurting himself (which really just means he is offending their precious sensibilities) with all of his tweets, and the (fictitious) scandals. Give me a break. Former President Barack Obama publicly declared that he would rule this country with “a pen and phone” if the Republicans in Congress did not yield to his legislative directives. Before him, former President George W. Bush was an incredibly controversial leader and inarticulate public speaker. Yet, Congress ultimately followed the imperial will of both presidents in most respects.
align=”right” Now, because the Republican sitting in the Oval Office isn’t Jeb Bush, but instead the “offensive” and unconventional Donald Trump, the Congressional GOP leaders tell us that they can do nothing because Trump is hurting himself (which really just means he is offending their precious sensibilities) with all of his tweets, and the (fictitious) scandals.
Let’s face it: whatever role that the last 13 presidents have had in expanding executive power, Congress has also played a major part in this unfortunate trend. Yes, over the years, the executive branch has made sport of steamrolling the legislative branch. But, the legislative branch—possessed of individuals who, when they look at themselves in the mirror, imagine they see a president staring back at them—has done little to prevent itself from being steamrolled. Or, in the immortal words of The Office’s Robert California: “The fallacy is that it [flattening an object] is up to the steamroller. It is up to the object…whether it will be flattened or not.”
Congress is an independent, co-equal branch of the federal government. It does not need a strong executive to write legislation for it! These Congressional leaders campaign on a platform of enacting legislation that, while it may comport with the platform of a given president, is not—should not—be contingent on whether a president approves of that platform. Consistent with the Burnham critique, these days Congress’ only self-imposed function is to serve as a referee―to make a painfully reductionist binary choice between either approving or rejecting the will of the executive branch. This lends credence to F.H. Buckley’s argument that America is ruled by a “crown government” or, an “elected monarchy” of sorts.
Speaking recently with Fox News’ Bret Baier, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said of his one-time GOP primary rival, President Donald J. Trump: “He could do things that no other Republican could do. He could get immigration done, he’s got credibility on the border I don’t have, he could go big on infrastructure—he’s a builder—he knows what tax cuts will do for the economy, and he’s been a great commander-in-chief.”
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Trump can do things no other Republican could―or would―dare do.
Everything that Graham said is demonstrably true. Graham’s comments lend credence to the notion that Congressional Republicans should be clamoring to work with Trump in enacting the agenda that both Trump and Congress were elected to implement. Yet, in spite of this, the Republican-controlled Congress has ignored this pristine opportunity to legislate and, instead, has opted to spend the bulk of the last four months investigating the Trump Administration for supposed illicit ties to Russia—even though the accusations against the President are categorically false. Congress would rather waste its limited time engaged in salacious rumor-mongering that might confirm their election time hysteria, than in actually implementing the agenda that a majority of Congress was elected to enact.
Unlike other presidents of the modern era, President Trump represents the undoing of the FDR political regime. Therefore, he is a threat not only to the Left, but also to the Establishment to which so many Republicans have, apparently, become beholden. While he holds massive power in his hands, conferred upon him by eight decades of executive overreach, Trump is trying to return a semblance of balance back to the federal government by relying on Congress to write the law. However, since a majority of Congress in no way shares Trump’s commitment to this project, they are going to drag their proverbial feet and do everything they can—irrespective of party—to damage Trump’s ability to govern.
Let’s face it: America’s constitutional government is broken. But it is not irreparable. We can blame power-hungry presidents for the damage, but the real sin has been Congressional cowardice and incompetence. And now that there is a leader who just might actually return some of the power to Congress, those Congressional leaders are now abandoning their responsibilities, refusing to lead, and blaming all of their problems on President Trump. After all, if they solve problems, what can they take home to get people worked up about during the next campaign? And once they start legislating, people might actually begin to expect more of it! Can’t have that. How pathetic.
align=”right” Unlike other presidents of the modern era, President Trump represents the undoing of the FDR political regime. Therefore, he is a threat not only to the Left, but also to the Establishment to which so many Republicans have, apparently, become beholden. While he holds massive power in his hands, conferred upon him by eight decades of executive overreach, Trump is trying to return a semblance of balance back to the federal government by relying on Congress to write the law.
The difference between previous years and today is that there is a strong contingent of voters who are behind President Trump and his agenda, no matter what. These same people largely voted for Congressional Republicans, believing that they would create and implement laws based on conservative, nationalist-populist (yes, these things go together) lines. Instead, Congressional Republicans are abdicating responsibility with the expectation that they will be able to save face in the media and still crush the Democrats politically (by blaming the Democrats for their failures). Rather than abandon Trump, however, the Trumpists will likely turn on wayward Congressional Republicans—especially if Trump begins taking Congress to task for not living up to its promises, as he should do. With each legislative delay, Congressional Republicans are committing political suicide. Personally, I’d recommend all voters in 2018 primary every single Congressional Republican who has either supported the irresponsible investigations into Trump and/or those Congressional leaders who have failed to create legislation in keeping with the promises upon which they campaigned. Just because Congress is a deliberative body composed of many people it is not thereby excused of its responsibility to lead. The voters will no longer sit idly by and watch our republic die. Voting is our only weapon for self-defense and We, The People, are prepared to use it—even against Republicans. It’s time for Congress either to stand up and lead, or get out of the way, and let those with the courage to lead repopulate the legislative branch.
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