How Congress Became a Basket Case

The candidacy of Donald Trump has made for some strange bedfellows. So I’m not terribly surprised to find myself agreeing with Jay Cost when he writes: “Donald Trump Cannot Save Our Republic.” While that sounds obvious to most liberals, I have become fascinated with the struggle on the right to find a “savior.” It speaks to their apocalyptic vision of what happens to this country if we continue on the path of “perfecting our union.” In the process, they seem to have abandoned both their commitment to the Constitution and any semblance of connection to reality. Cost actually agrees.

This rhetoric is well-designed to prey upon the fears of conservatives who loathe Hillary Clinton, but it is not the language of American republicanism. Indeed, the fact that it has gained such traction on the right is a signal that many conservatives themselves have lost touch with the traditions of our constitutional system.

He goes on to talk about how we have placed the presidency at the center of American political life and then nails how that happened.

It is this framework, not the original vision in the Constitution, that requires us to view the 2016 presidential race with such alacrity. If we anti-Trump conservatives concede that the president is some sort of governmental superman, functioning as a king in all but name, then every four years the future of the republic must be at stake.

This is not to suggest that the republic is not in danger. Indeed, it is. Rather, I would argue that the “imperial presidency” is a symptom of the underlying malady—and that to cede the point to progressives on the centrality of the executive office is to thwart our own efforts to restore constitutional principles to preeminence.

The ailment, simply put, is this: Congress is a basket case.

From there I completely part ways with Cost. He blames the “imperial presidency” on Democrats (instead of people like Dick Cheney) and suggests that Congress is a basket case because they haven’t been unreasonable enough. For example:

If Congress is of the opinion that the executive branch is not following the legislative will, it possesses the authority to withhold funds. But Congress, time and again, has ceded this authority to the executive branch—especially with entitlement programs that are funded “automatically” and agencies that receive revenues independent of congressional action.

In other words, let’s give the people another government shutdown – that will surely restore their faith in Congress…not!

In the real world, Congress has been emasculated as a result of two strategies crafted by Republicans. The first happened back in the Gingrich era and was described by Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards in an article titled, “The Big Lobotomy.”

A quick refresher: In 1995, after winning a majority in the House for the first time in forty years, one of the first things the new Republican House leadership did was gut Congress’s workforce. They cut the “professional staff” (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the “legislative support staff” (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the Congressional Research Service [CRS], and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) entirely. And they fundamentally dismantled the old committee structure, centralizing power in the House speaker’s office and discouraging members and their staff from performing their own policy research…

Gingrich’s strategy, as he explained it to Mann and Ornstein, was simple: Cultivate a seething disdain for the institution of Congress itself, while simultaneously restructuring it so as to eliminate anything—powerful chairmen, contradictory facts from legislative support agencies, more moderate Republicans—that would stand in the way of his vision.

All of that was followed by the Republican strategy of total obstruction in response to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. As a reminder, here is how Mike Lofgren (former Republican Congressional staffer) described their goal.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

After all of that, is it any wonder that Congress is a basket case and voters think they need a president to save us?

Over the years I have become convinced that the best case liberals can make is to ensure that we have a government that works. That requires a functioning Congress as well as a pragmatic president and a staffed judiciary. There is a sense in which Republicans seem to understand that and are doing all they can to create dysfunction in all three branches. Perhaps that works well for winning the Washington power game, but it is devastating for our politics and progress as a people.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.