Who Needs Congress?

After eight years of total obstruction from Congress—including an unprecedented move to not even hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee—President Obama reluctantly turned to his “pen and phone” strategy during his final two years in office. That went beyond things like his executive order on DREAMers to crafting his counterterrorism strategy, the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord in such a way that he could bypass the need for Congressional approval.

On many of these issues, that caused concern for people who value the democratic process of checks and balances laid out in our Constitution. And rightly so. The challenge Obama faced was the prospect of not addressing some of our biggest challenges due to the inability/unwillingness of Congress to work with him. Amidst cries of “tyranny” from the right, the American public seems to like the fact that something was actually being done. Obama’s job-approval rating began to rise.

Now take a look at this data from the latest NBC/WSJ poll.

As Yglesias points out, the majority of Americans think Trump is dishonest, ignorant and intemperate—but hey…he’s getting things done!

While a lot of people (including yours truly) have been pointing out that Trump hasn’t actually gotten much done, that is not what the majority of Americans are seeing. This is where I’ll give Steve Bannon some credit. I assume that he is the one behind the flood of executive orders signed by Trump in the initial weeks of his administration. While they were incompetently bungled (i.e., travel ban) or didn’t actually do anything, they had the appearance of action.

If we look at Bannon’s three “buckets” that he outlined at CPAC, they include (1) national security and sovereignty, (2) economic nationalism and (3) deconstruction of the administrative state. The only one of those three that might require Congressional action is #2, by which he primarily means trade deals. But at this point, any of those that are re-negotiated can be fast-tracked with 51 votes in the Senate.

The one thing that can’t be accomplished without Congressional action is the budget. That is why during the Obama years we saw the Republicans use it as a hostage to get what they wanted. It is also why the GOP plans to use the budget reconciliation process (which requires only 51 votes) to get their big agenda items of Obamacare repeal and tax cuts accomplished.

But this is ultimately a dangerous path. It is Dick Cheney’s idea of an “imperial presidency” writ large. When we talk about the dangers of normalizing Trump, this one will likely surface to the top of the list in short order.

The emasculation of Congress is not a recent development. As Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote in the Washington Monthly back in 2014, it all started with what has come to be known as the “Gingrich revolution.”

Why would conservative lawmakers decimate the staff and organizational capacity of an institution they themselves control? Part of it is political optics: What better way to show the conservative voters back home that you’re serious about shrinking government than by cutting your own staff? But a bigger reason is strategic. The Gingrich Revolutionaries of 1995 and the Tea Partiers of 2011 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 professional 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.

Mike Lofgren articulated the overall strategy back in 2011.

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.

Going forward, the neutering of Congress will allow Bannon to put the alpha males back in charge of foreign policy and deconstruct the administrative state. The only real check on all that will be whether or not Republicans in Congress are prepared re-assert their authority and hold the administration accountable. So far, the signs don’t look good.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.