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Congress must assert itself

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POSTED: January 5, 2008 5:02 a.m.
To the casual observer, Congress must seem unusually pushy these days. Its Democratic majority is tussling with the White House over the budget. Senators are investigating the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes. The House Oversight Committee has accused the White House of systematically impeding scientific inquiry into global warming.
And hearings into past administration behavior— from wiretaps to doings at the Justice Department — continue. Aren’t those politicians on Capitol Hill going a little overboard, you might wonder?
The short answer is: No. Not even close.
This is not a partisan comment about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about the relationship between Capitol Hill and the White House, and how important it is to our system that each — the presidency and the Congress — be a strong and vibrant institution.
To understand why, let’s start with the vision for our democracy as laid out in the Constitution. What the founders sought above all was balance- between large states and small, minority rights and majority rule, the executive power and the legislative.
To keep the president from becoming too powerful, they not only created an equally powerful Congress, they explicitly gave it authority — to declare war, to enact taxes, to set the budgetary agenda — designed to ensure that consultation, debate, and the voices of the American people would all have a prominent place in the halls of power.
They did not want an unchecked Congress. They believed that the interaction between two powerful branches of government would be broadly responsive to the people, and the balance between each branch would produce better policy.
Yet over the last few decades, on issue after issue, Congress has slowly but inexorably ceded its constitutionally mandated responsibilities to the president. Presidents of both parties have sought and encouraged this trend, although it has accelerated under President Bush, who has pursued a definition of executive power more all-encompassing than that of any of his predecessors.
Perhaps the most vivid example of this overall shift in power lies in the weightiest decision a government has to make: whether to go to war against another country. The Constitution unequivocally grants this authority to Congress, and it does so for a reason — our founders wanted the decision to be made not by one person, but by many.
In case after case since the Korean conflict, however, Congress has essentially handed off war-making power to the President, and presidents have been only too eager to accept it. The constitutional injunction — the Congress shall have the power to declare war — has become a nullity. In the popular mind as well as in practice, war has become a presidential prerogative.
Similarly, Congress has over the last few decades grown increasingly sluggish when it comes to budgeting — that is, creating the basic blueprint for what our government will do. Not only has it ceded the initiative to the president, who submits the budget while Congress merely responds, but it has repeatedly failed to come up with its own clear vision for government spending; the President determines well over 90 percent of the federal budget year after year, while Congress gets to tinker on the margins.
And only four times in the last 30 years has Congress passed all its appropriations bills on time, which greatly strengthens the president’s hand, as is apparent at the end of every budget year.
War and the budget are not the only arenas in which Congress has effectively relinquished its agenda-setting role. On everything from the fight against terror to international trade to protecting the environment, and a host of other issues, the President and executive branch have become the driving forces in American governance. Congress, though not entirely supine, has been content to let the president take the political heat for actually leading.
To be sure, the world our nation faces is vastly different from the one our founders confronted or could even envision in 1789. In a difficult world, an increase in presidential power is appropriate. But a timid Congress is not. A Congress that reasserts its prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government, that insists on robust oversight of the executive branch, that sets its own agenda as well as responds to the agenda of the President, that exercises the powers given it by our Constitution when it comes to declaring war and deciding how the government will spend its money — this would not be a Congress that weakens the president, but rather one that strengthens our democracy.
All it would take would be for members of Congress to muster the political will and confidence to do what their office requires them to do: uphold and defend the Constitution.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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