Congressional reform is way overdue
President Donald J. Trump’s recent Helsinki trip was an awful spectacle. In short order, he managed to antagonize the allies we need to maintain European stability and balance against Russian ambitions. Trump’s declaration that he believed Vladimir Putin — not America’s intelligence agencies — regarding Russian election meddling drew scathing condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike.
The Helsinki debacle was the latest in a series of foreign policy blunders, which began not long after Trump assumed office. The President insulted the prime minister of Australia, then the president of Mexico, before annoying Canada’s leadership by insisting that Canada had shafted America in trade deals. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has demanded the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Senate recently voted to condemn the President’s offer to allow Russian security agents to interview former U.S. diplomats. Otherwise, Congress has done little to reign Trump in as he shreds the nation’s valuable alliances with foreign powers.
Critics often are quick to blame congressional passivity on partisanship. Many Republicans certainly are gun shy about attacking the de facto leader of their party. But congressional indulgence of the executive is not an aberration of the Trump presidency. Legislators have both grown the executive branch and permitted executives to act without authorization and with little fear of consequences for a century.
Congressional torpor is a problem for our separation of powers system, which was designed to prevent arbitrary and capricious government by having the three branches counteract one another’s power grabs.
In the past, Congress responded to executive ascendance by strengthening itself. The 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act was a soup-to-nuts reworking of the legislature, and aimed to curb the executive branch, which had grown immensely during the Great Depression and World War II. The law swept away anachronistic legislative procedures and committee jurisdictions. Congress created a new process for budgeting, and reorganized the congressional committee system to empower its oversight of the executive. Recognizing that bigger government meant more to manage, Congress hired more staff to craft policy, oversee spending, and respond to public demands.
Two decades later, Congress again found itself supine before an “imperial presidency” that was out of control and out of touch with the public. So the legislature bolstered its power by expanding congressional capacity. It added to its corps of expertise by hiring more civil servants and tightening its power over the purse. The effects were immediate and positive, with great oversight efforts like the Church Committee’s exposure of domestic spying and other misdoings by intelligence agencies.
Congress’ last serious attempt at reform occurred in the early 1990s. Intra-Democratic party politics kneecapped the effort. When the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, they enacted reform of their own sort: they downsized congressional staff and centralized power in the speakership. The GOP also cut the budget of the Government Accountability Office and abolished the Office of Technology Assessment. With fewer civil servants to help it, our national legislature grew weaker vis-a-vis the president.
Congress was set up as the first branch of government, the institution which would be most in tune with a diverse public. Its main job is to listen to voters and reconcile their competing demands into policy carried out by the executive branch. This is the very definition of representative government.
Trump’s behavior, however, is exacerbating the long-term trend wherein Congress grows weaker and the executive branch grows stronger. The cumulative effect over time is a government less connected to a diverse public, and more divisive rule by presidents playing to their electoral bases. Governance has become less stable as executive orders are used to make new policy and abolish policies created by former presidents.
This trend has not gone unnoticed by voters. Indeed, our government risks a legitimacy crisis because the people have been quite unhappy with Congress for quite some time. For a decade, fewer than one in five Americans have approved of Congress’ performance.
It has been more than four decades since Congress reorganized itself and bolstered its resources to meet the evolving demands of the day. The 21st century is here, and our national legislature is lagging far behind. Congressional reform is desperately overdue.
The Constitution grants Congress immense authority to structure and fund itself as it deems best. Small efforts to “make Congress great again” are happening in the Capitol, such as the bipartisan efforts at budget reform and congressional reorganization.
However, they will not achieve much unless more of we the people contact our senators and representatives to tell them to reform and strengthen Congress now.