How Republicans Weakened Congress and Strengthened the Presidency

For the last year, Obama has been exercising his authority as president to do things that Congress has been unable/unwilling to do. In response, Republicans have accused him of being a tyrannical dictator and suggested that he is over-stepping his Constitutional authority.

Of course, it is never mentioned that Republicans like Dick Cheney made it their goal in politics to expand the executive authority of the President. They even gave the whole idea a name: the unitary executive.

But the truth is, when it comes to the shift of power away from Congress and to the President, we’ve been walking down that path for a while now. Last week the think tank R Street released a white paper – Restoring Congress as the First Branch – that defines this as a problem and brings together several authors to propose solutions.

Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly, provided some historical perspective about how, beginning in the 1940’s, Congress became concerned about executive-branch power and created things like the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Technology Assessment. Along with professional staff for committees, this was a way of improving the expertise and oversight of Congress.

The dismantling of all that started with the “Gingrich Revolution” in 1995 and has been continued by members of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus.

The Gingrich Revolutionaries of 1995, the Tea Partiers of 2011 and the Freedom Caucusers of today share the same basic dream: to defund and dismantle the vast complex of agencies and programs that have been created by bipartisan majorities since the New Deal. The people in Congress who knew those agencies and programs best and were most invested in making them work—the pro- fessional staffers, the CRS analysts, the veteran committee chairs—were not going to consent to seeing them swept away. So they had to be swept away.

What we’re seeing is that the more Republicans chip away at the effectiveness and professionalism of Congress, the more it empowers the executive branch. I don’t expect the nihilists in the GOP right now to actually recognize what’s going on, much less to do anything to correct the problem. But it IS a problem for our democracy – and something Democrats should be paying attention to.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.